A moment comes when you first start listening to minimalist music—for some people it comes quickly, for some people it never clicks at all—when your perception of time changes. As a musician famously described his first exposure to a Philip Glass opera; his initial boredom was transformed as...
I began to perceive...a whole world where change happens so slowly and carefully that each new harmony or rhythmic addition or subtraction seemed monumental...
...he said as the rhythmic woodblock...no, it's Adams not Glass...the woodblock crack of the pulling Stanford guard's pads as he thumped the Oregon SAM out of the hole play after play after play after...
NO! I will NOT spend my Thursday evening in an altered state of consciousness. So I started using the media timeouts, and then the time between plays (well, at least when Stanford had the ball, which thankfully was just about always) to work on a project I'd started a few days earlier during the Gameboy diaries, pulling participation reports for all 125 FBS teams and pulling roster/bio information to get the classes of their starters on the o-line.
And some of you people think huddles serve no purpose.
Honestly, the Horse Wasn't Dead When I Started
The results are here, usefully tabled in a spreadsheet to save some work for the next sap that starts on one of these projects.
Of course, as I sat down at my computer to do some regression analysis on the data I opened the blog and saw Gandalf's diary covering most of what I was planning to do (and doing a better job of it I might add). But I was taking a slightly different tack and found a couple of wrinkles, so for the sake of the eight of you that are still interested I'll continue on....
First a couple of comments about the dataset (feel free to skip the rest of this section, but it might be important if anyone uses the data for further analysis). Gandalf took his data from depth charts at the ourlads.com scouting site; mine come from the starting lineup listed in each school's participation report in the official game stats for their most recent game against FBS competition (sometimes coaches play with their lineup for games they're treating as exhibitions, give a start to a loyal walk-on for example, so if the most recent game was against a Delaware State I pulled the lineup for the week prior).
The official reports have the virtue, or defect, of being precise accounts of who was on the field. Sometimes that was a problem because everyone doesn't actually use five offensive linemen all the time. Idaho started a game with four, presumably spreading the field with covered, ineligible tight ends and wide receivers. Somebody else came out heavy and listed six. There were also some schools that simply listed their linemen as “OL” without assigning specific positions.
Where possible I straightened those situations out by using the schools' published depth charts. When that didn't work either I looked at third-party depth charts and did my best to reconcile them with the actual starters. It's possible there are a couple of players out of position here, but I don't think it's material.
For teams, usually pistol teams, that flop their line, I assumed the tight end would line up to the right and assigned the quick tackle and guard to the left side and the strong tackle and guard to the right.
For obvious reasons, service academies don't redshirt players. If an academy lineman's bio showed a year in which he didn't see game action, I counted that year as a redshirt and subtracted the year from his class. The point after all was to look at experience, not remaining eligibility.
Additive and Multiplicative Measures of Experience
My starting point was two proposals in the Gameboy diaries. Gameboy himself proposed assigning a value to each player (one point for each year, half a point for a redshirt) and adding them (well, averaging them, which of course is the same thing but for scale). That average appears in the spreadsheet as the GLEM (Gameboy Line Experience Metric).
In a comment to one of the diaries reshp1 suggested an alternative: assigning a value to each player based on experience (conceived as the probability that the player in question will successfully carry out his assignment) and multiplying those values and subtracting the product from one to get the probability that an assignment will be busted on a given play. That probability appears in the spreadsheet as the RBI (Reshp Bust Index). It's basically the weakest-link theory with the additional recognition that anyone might turn out to be the weakest link on a given play.
I focused on the latter metric because conceptually it makes sense to me and because it wasn't treated in Gandalf's diary. Reshp1 pulled the probabilities out of the air, or his hat, or somewhere, but the analysis doesn't seem to be sensitive to the particular choices here. The values are in a lookup table on page 2 of the spreadsheet if anyone wants to play around with alternatives.
Before I go on, a sanity check on Reshp1's metric—a list of the ten youngest lines:
- UCLA (7-2, 4-2)
- Idaho (1-9)
- California (1-9, 0-7)
- Wake Forest (4-6, 2-5)
- Eastern Michigan (2-8, 1-5)
- Western Kentucky (6-4, 2-3)
- Tulane (6-4, 4-2)
- Maryland (5-4, 1-4)
- Arkansas (3-7, 0-6)
- Michigan (6-3, 2-3)
Not a list you want to be on; those are some bad teams right there, combining for a 16-37 record in their respective conferences and that's flattering because it leaves out independent Idaho, who's probably the worst of the lot. (You can point to UCLA if you like as proof that, if everything goes right, you can survive starting multiple freshmen. Arkansas fans are probably pointing to Michigan and saying the same thing.)
The Running Game
Sanity check #2 is to redo Gandalf's work, but with Reshp's metric. Here's a graph of yards per carry vs. RBI:
That looks familiar. R2 is .058; the correlation coefficient is -.24 (these coefficients will all be negative because RBI is smaller for more experienced lines). And if we strip out the tackles and just look at the interior?
R2 is .084, the correlation coefficient is -.29, and it's not a coincidence that this looks an awful lot like Gandalf's chart using “youngest interior lineman”.
Weakest link, check. Experience matters more on the interior than at the tackles, check.
But what I really wanted to do was to look at the impact of o-line experience on an offense as a whole. To do that I've used the offensive component of the Fremeau Efficiency Index, which looks at all offensive drives (except for clock-kills and garbage-time drives) and compares the results to expectations based on the starting field position. By its nature it's pace-adjusted and independent of the effect of the team's defense; they also apply a strength of schedule adjustment.
Here's the chart:
R2 is .026, the correlation coefficient is –.16. The effect’s not as large, but a young line impacts the whole offense, not just the run game.
It made some sense that in the running game experience would matter more in the interior than at the tackles since it's an interior lineman that makes the line calls and the assignments tend to be more complicated inside. It wasn't so clear that this would still hold when the passing game was added in:
but that's what we find. The correlation is greater when we only look at the interior. R2 is .048, the correlation coefficient is -.22.
It's on the interior that experience really matters. And Michigan's interior RBI ranks 123rd of 125 FBS teams.
How Large an Effect?
A lot was made in Gandalf's diary, and especially in the comments, about the low R2 values here, which were seen as a demonstration of the relative unimportance of experience vs. other factors, like coaching.
I see it differently. This is an extremely diverse universe of teams we're looking at here. There are differences between Michigan and Eastern, or between Ohio State and Ohio U., that can't ever be overcome by something as simple as inexperience on the line. A lot of the scatter in these charts is just a matter of big programs being big and small programs being small. Given those enormous differences in baseline levels of the various FBS teams it's amazing to me that we could see anything like 5-8% of a performance difference being credited to any one team demographic, especially when the difference is measured using an SOS-adjusted metric like Fremeau.
And the slopes of these trend lines aren't small. The expected oFEI difference between 2012 Michigan and 2013 Michigan is .32; the actual difference is .197. The expectation, just correcting last year's performance for the youth on the field this year, was for a worse offense than we've actually seen.
Put another way, if you use that trend line to adjust for this year's lack of experience, add the missing .32, Michigan's offense goes to 19th in the nation, right behind Stanford and Louisville. UCLA turns into Oregon. Eastern becomes Bowling Green and maybe English keeps his job. Everybody's happy.
Good Teams are All Alike, Every Bad Team is Bad in its Own Way
I thought I'd try to get a handle on that by comparing each team's performance to the baseline they've established historically. I've averaged the oFEI's for each program for the five-year period from 2008-2012, then calculated the deviation of this year's performance from that average.
Basically, we're now looking at year-to-year deviations in performance within each program.
On the one hand, this gets rid of the scatter due to the vast discrepancy in baseline performance expectations from the top to the bottom of the division.
On the other hand, this also filters out any effect from programs like Wisconsin whose strength largely comes from the fact that they always field powerful, experienced lines. There's not much year-to-year variance there—they're always old, always good.
So it's possible we won't see any bigger correlation here than before...
...what happened? R2 is .009. Two-thirds of the effect is now gone. (A result, by the way, that's consistent no matter what metrics I use for line experience.) Apparently, only a third of the effect we’re looking at is a matter of one-off bad seasons due to a young line; most of the effect is systematic, inherent in particular programs. It's almost as if there were a correlation between poor past performance and current youth, and that's because there is:
There's the missing two-thirds. Historically (well, over the last five years anyway) bad teams are on the left, good programs on the right. There's less current youth (lower Bust Index) as you move right.
A look back at the teams listed earlier provides a clue. It's a mix of historically bad programs like Eastern, struggling FCS converts like Idaho, and programs that have suffered some sort of recent calamity, the kind that makes you decide to hire John L. Smith to be your substitute teacher for a year. Some had horrible recruiting, some had retention problems…each one has had its peculiar issues but every one of them is a program in disarray—some recovering, some not. Teams don’t field multiple freshmen because they want to; they do it because things fell apart.
We'll know more if someone does the study suggested in the comments to Gandalf's diary, looking at overall roster depth instead of just the age of the starters, but I think what's happening here is that the Wisconsin effect is the dominant effect in the study. Good programs don't suffer from youth on their lines because (a) it doesn't happen to them and (b) when it does, it's not a sign of weakness. When Andrus Peat finds his way to the top of the depth chart as a sophomore it's because he's beaten out multiple upperclassmen and won the position. When Kyle Bosch find his way to the top of the depth chart it's by default; the juniors and seniors he's supposed to be competing against aren't on the roster.
I think the next thing I might try, if I were of a mind to keep flogging this, is to do something so straightforward and blunt as to look for a correlation between offensive efficiency and the number of scholarship upperclass o-linemen on a roster (more telling than the percentage, I would guess).
This isn’t for you, it’s for me.
The maxim you always hear surrounding hate is that it stems from broken love, that the same fire necessary to burn with unbridled animosity emanates from the same spot in one’s heart that you once left open and accepting. Great novels and a whole bunch of songs have been written about the debilitating power of love and respect as it turns to anger and betrayal, grinding salt and bile into the fresh fissures of the aorta. It is poetic and divine, blind to race or creed, man or woman; the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” of being.
And it’s all crap, at least when you apply it to sport.*
The reason most fans “hate” other teams is because they “hate” losing to people they know, whether personally or as archetypes. I have never loved or particularly cared for most of UM’s rivals despite the fact I actually attended MSU for law school. When some school like Wisconsin or Illinois talks up a budding rivalry and bad blood with the Wolverines, I could not care less because it’s all relative and irrelevant at the same time. People don’t like losing, and if you keep losing to a team a bunch of times you come to hate that feeling. Replace that team with another and the hatred remains the same even though the target has changed.
UM fans hate to lose to Notre Dame because they represent the same blue-blooded traditions and faded glory, the same time-honored notions of scholar-athletes battling it out for school and pride and definitely not for financial gain. Perhaps on some level, it is also because the academic standings of those schools attract individuals cognizant of somewhat-arbitrary scholastic rankings and the “prestige” that can be derived from them. And, well, they’ve been around so long that at some point, you just get sick of seeing them year after year.
With Ohio State and Michigan State, the distaste comes from all of the regional, historical, and national implications found to varying degrees with the Fighting Irish, but also in part because of the cultural differences found at those schools. Whole stadiums could be filled every Saturday by the strawmen we create about our opponents; as fans it is the most natural way to look at the opposition, incredibly shallow in depth but immensely wide in breadth. With UM, the arrogance is the calling card; Buckeyes and Spartans call out UM fans for their “wine and cheese”, their haughty sense of superiority derived from endowments and famous alumni and the “Michigan Man” ideology that supposedly runs through the blood of every Wolverine. They point out the sanctimony in questioning the intelligence and morality of players on the other teams despite the fact that UM was likely recruiting them at some point, and wonder how it is possible to whitewash away all those sins as soon as a player steps foot in Schembechler Hall. And they point out that for all the stirs and echoes of past wins, it hasn’t been pretty recently.
OSU feels like the jock who broke the rules and got away with it largely unscathed, the guy who sweeps the leg even though he probably doesn’t need to. Ohio State has the tradition and resources to stand amongst the giants in the sport, and yet they keep bringing in liars, cheaters, and hypocrites who tweak the rules just enough while winning in every way possible. And perhaps most aggravating for UM, OSU appears to just be “better” than the Wolverines right now, and probably have been for nearly a decade. As UM has undergone a series of painful, largely self-inflicted transitions, OSU just continues on with few hiccups despite far more serious upheaval.
But at least with OSU, it feels like they’ve “earned” that right to be better than UM, given their prior accomplishments and their consistency. In this tortured analogy, they are the dickish prep kid with the nice car who gets the girl; MSU was Ducky. It’s a program with a losing bowl record, virtually no national profile, and a fanbase characterized as a mix of Juggalos and Ax body spray aficionados. It is the very model of a mediocre program, with the status quo being that MSU cared way more about beating UM because they almost never did, and that all of the “little brother” comments were appropriate-if-sophomoric shots at a program and school that was always tugging on the coattails of UM, never able to keep pace. It almost didn’t matter if you hailed from Novi or New York City, Charlevoix or Chicago; if you were a UM student you saw MSU as the collection of brosephs and meatheads (and whatever the female equivalents are) that you tried to escape while in high school. You beat them in the classroom, in the boardroom, and on the football field, and with such regularity it was hard to drum up anything stronger than a slight snicker and faux outrage whenever asked about them.
But that’s changed recently, at least on the football field. While I foresee this being a bit of an apogee for MSU given its so-so recruiting and significant turnover after this season, the fact remains that MSU has dominated this series the past 6 games (going 5-1 and losing that one game on a last-second FG). It is MSU with the consistent identity, the staunch defense and opportunistic offense, the team that gets most of the breaks and tends to win going away. It is the UM fans that yearn for those victories, who treat a game that used to be a semi-emotional speedbump into a major touchstone and measuring stick for the program. And perhaps most surprisingly, the hatred that was once seemingly directed unilaterally now flows both ways, more full with vinegar and vitriol than most can remember. It’s a bit sad in a way that the gap has closed this much between the two schools on the field, but at least now the animosity feels earned.
* I’m sure there are soccer fans who’d argue about national and club rivalries that are born from turncoats, geographic proximity, and broken dreams, and hell Pakistan and India play cricket with missiles pointed at each other. But I’d argue that animosity exists outside of sport; the field or pitch merely provides a sanctioned analog.
Worst: You know, they cancelled the O.C. late as well
This point isn’t going to be sugar-coated: I’m done with this offensive staff. I’m sure the UFR will point out areas where the right playcalls were made but failed because of execution issues (I remember at least two passes in the 3rd quarter where Gardner missed Funchess wide-open, even though at least once it was because he was under heavy pressure). But at some time, the writing is on the wall even if it isn’t totally that Borges’s fault. It has been nearly three years and the team is as schizophrenic and discordinate as ever on the offensive end, and I’m tired of the “wait until next year” refrains that grew stale under Rodriguez. And at least with Rodriguez, you had a high-octane offense with a clear identity that has worked at every other stop.
True, Borges got a bad hand when he showed up at UM, inheriting a playmaker and not a QB with Denard, a guy who couldn’t run his offense and who had few targets to throw at period. He rode it out as best as possible, but it was a bad fit masked by the early success the team had in spite of it; that 11-2 season with memorable wins over ND and OSU gave people the false hope that the talent and coaches could make it work despite the mismatch. Last year happened and everyone realized Borges and Robinson weren’t a good fit, but the expectation was that Gardner would be a better match at least in the short-term. The offensive line, though, has betrayed them the past two years, and the progression and maturation people expected has been, at best, minimal across the board.
Given the right talent, I’m sure Borges could field a productive offense, but that looks to be 2-3 years in the future. In the meantime, this team loses its best WR as well as its best slot threat, its two best linemen, and its only seemingly competent RB. There are some bright spots, but there doesn’t seem to be anything approximating a rainbow on the horizon. What killed RR was his historically poor defenses; outside of the IU and ND games, this offense has been historically bad, and something needs to be done beyond max protect and stacked lines against Minnesota. This is a bit morbid, but at some point you need to Marissa the situation before everyone gets hurt.
Al Borges isn’t a visionary, and there a dozens of coordinators out there who could score 60+ points against IU and, I hope, more than 28 against Akron and 24 against UConn with far less hassle and a bit more coherence. With weeks to prepare, he called a listless game that featured slow-developing running plays, long passes despite heavy pressure, and a continued belief that he’ll make this work if he just keeps slamming his head against the wall. Well, that wall isn’t going anywhere, and all we have is a headache.
I understand that loyalty in a program is hard to break, but this is also a competitive system in which under-performance can’t be allowed to remain unaddressed. Players have been moved in and out of the starting lineup because they haven’t performed “up to the position” while in uniform; it’s time for the guys making those decisions to be held to the same standard.
Worst: Downs and Distances
Here are some downs and distances from this game:
|3rd and 20|
|4th and 21|
|3rd and 18|
|4th and 24|
|2nd and 30|
|3rd and 29|
|4th and 48|
|3rd and 24|
They had three drives of more than 50 yards, two of which ended in FGs and the third in Gardner’s interception. For every other drive combined, UM ended with –7(!!!) yards of total offense. That’s right; with two weeks of preparation and countless promises to adapt, UM produced the worst offensive performance any of us will probably ever see out of the Wolverines. They punted or turned the ball over on downs with 4 or fewer plays 8 times this game. After Raymon Taylor’s interception of Cook late in the 3rd quarter, UM’s subsequent drive resulted in –21 yards of offense and, according to ESPN’s official boxscore, was the end of the game despite there being a whole quarter to go. And honestly, I don’t think that was a misprint.
That isn't an implosion; that's f'ing Katamari on a football field. And we've seen enough of that particular output the past couple of years for a lifetime.
Best: I still have no idea about this defense
I know the numbers weren’t pretty in the end, but MSU gained 153 of their 394 total yards of offense on those two final drives when the game was effectively over. They forced a punt or turnover on 6 other drives, and were victimized a bit by some fluky plays that could have ended drives. It was a competent defensive performance and, if the offense had been able to do virtually anything, probably would have been enough to win the game.
Mattison remains an enigma, and like Al Borges is working with a sub-optimal collection of players. Still, his insistence on 3-man rushes was alternately appropriate and maddening; there were a half-dozen instances where MSU WRs were wide open despite dedicating 8 players to defend against the pass. At the same time, it’s a unit that recorded 1 sack all game, and it came from a corner blitz where Ross and Avery met at the QB. Frank Clark played pretty well in run defense, recording 2.5 TFLs among his 9 tackles, but only hit the QB once and was generally unable to generate much in the way of sustained pressure. Black and Washington were quiet, and given Black’s abilities rushing the passer I would have liked to see him get a chance despite his obvious limitations against the run. Jake Ryan is working his way back in, but this remains a unit of B+ players, and that doesn’t hold up throughout the game.
Langford ended the day with 120 yards but 62 of those came on the last drive. I thought the linebackers played reasonably well, though again it was an ugly game where guys were getting open but Cook just missed them sometimes, while at other times he was able to loft a ball over 4 guys into the only open spot on the field.
Taylor had the lone interception on a nice read but was also the leading tackler with 12, which is okay if you are playing Indiana but not so good when Connor Cook is barely completing 50% of his passes. The rest of the secondary was alternately in great coverage and allowing Bennie Fowler to beat them down the field only to be overthrown because, again, Connor Cook. While some people will cry out for his removal as well, I’m willing to give him a bit more rope simply because I’ve seen strides made from this unit and, outside of IU, they have been above-average all year. Furthermore, Mattison has a track record far more accomplished than others on this staff, and given the recruits coming in it is hard to argue that the defense will not improve as the younger players mature.
I hated it when Mike Hart brought up familiar relations between the two schools, and since then it has only gotten more juvenile and asinine. I get poking fun at a rival, but one would hope that these two fanbases could have created something more creative, more thoughtful and meaningful than insults based on who got out of their metaphorical mother’s uterus first. It all came to a crescendo toward the end of Saturday’s game, when the Spartan faithful began chanting “little sister” in a tone that can best be described a mix between Nelson Muntz and Law & Order: SVU. In one sense it’s dumb to argue that fans have gone too far because of some chanting considering you could go about a billion times farther, but this also feels like a cycle that needs to be broken and not perpetuated by guys who weren’t even in HS when it started. People complain about the ND rivalry taking a hiatus and how that might diminish hostilities needlessly; I’d be fine if UM and MSU skipped a year or two so that both fandoms could look in the mirror and figure out something, anything better than these infantile sayings.
Best: MSU’s Defense is REALLY Good
I was a non-believer of sorts because I thought MSU hadn’t really played a good offense save ND and IU, but this is a terrifyingly-good defense that should pose major issues for OSU in the conference title game. Though it lacks elite athleticism, it plays with the type of precision and consistency you expect from a well-coached squad, and outside of a couple of plays UM could do absolutely nothing against it. It will look demonstrably different next year when many of its best players graduate and (I suspect) Narduzzi moves on, but it should remain a solid unit going forward as long as Dantonio is at the helm. That said…
Worst: Penalties were turned off, apparently
My gawd are those corners reliant on the referees not throwing flags. I get there is some physicality expected on passing routes, but there was not a single pass interference call (sorry Brian, you were off by 1) made despite Funchess and Gallon carrying corners down the field like they were f’ing Ents. I’m not saying the game would have been totally different with a couple of flags, but ND’s 4 PIs against MSU were a major reason they were able to move the ball semi-successfully down the field. Even my wife, who is 19-and-a-half months pregnant (perhaps slight exaggeration) thought it was pretty egregious, and she has a parasite inside her trying to steal all of her iron.
Worst: Poor Damn Devin and Fitz – The Duet
Gardner had a decent enough game when he wasn’t getting murdered by MSU’s pass rush, which recorded 7 sacks and 7 more hits. He completed about 52% of his passes for 210 yards, averaging about 7.8 ypa and having a couple of drops by his receivers halting drives. His rushing total was marred by losing 46 yards on sacks and that horrible snap, and the hits ultimately led to his removal with (one hopes) a relatively minor injury. Seeing him be lifted off the field, mud caked on his jersey while clearly wincing in pain, and then running another play was a bit heartbreaking, even though he nearly blew a third-down conversion by pulling up early. It wasn’t heroic, but anyone who questions whether or not this kid is trying his best out there needs to step away from the keyboard.
As for Fitz, what can you say? MSU has the best rushing defense in the country by a mile, and they showed it again this game. He only ran the ball 8 times, but limited the TFLs to one and generally took what the defense gave him. In a different game perhaps he could have produced better results, but I kind of doubt it. His senior year will likely be remembered for returning from a gruesome injury to play behind a young, under-performing line and getting beaten up in the process. As noted, I could have done without the public comments, but he’s clearly soldiering on and at this point, I don’t think you can expect much else from him.
Worst: What about Hoke?
I’ll keep this brief because this is totally speculative: he’s earned himself some leeway with the recruiting and the early wins, but there needs to be some changes made to this program going into next year. As noted earlier, I think the offensive system needs to be overhauled with a new coordinator, and that includes hiring a dedicated QB coach and not being so tied to a single vision despite mounting evidence it isn’t going to happen with the players available. The defense is a work in progress but one that feels like it has potential given continued recruiting and player maturation. Mattison is not above reproach, but enough smart people swear by him that there has to be something there. And outside of Ohio, this team still feels like the favorite against Iowa, NW, and Nebraska, and that’s 9 wins with a possible bowl win. Let’s not throw a parade or anything, but given how this season has unfolded it isn’t horrible. Plus, given what happened with RR, this program needs some stability even if it is somewhat mediocre.
Best: The Next Two Weeks
Looking at the schedule, what once looked like a hellish November now seems positively bearable. Nebraska can’t stop anyone, and NW can’t stop the saddest song from playing in an infinite loop. Neither is a gimme win, but I’d be a bit disappointed with even a split. Much will rely on Gardner being healthy and the offense continuing its Jekyll and Hyde home/road split, but luckily UM won’t have to play a team like MSU again this year, and just typing that makes me a little sadder. Ah well, I’ve gone this far.
I know you feel, John…
Worst: Totally Meta
To let you in a bit on how the sausage is made with one of these posts, I usually sit down with my laptop during the game and play around in the liveblog while taking some really cursory notes. While I’m sure I could figure out how to watch lineplay and defensive adjustments intricately in order to make really astute observations about particular players, there are lots of people here at MGoBlog who do a great job with that level of detail and, frankly, I doubt I’d be able to add much. No, the Best and Worst is all about a layman’s observations of a game, with (I hope) a bit of humor, some fun long-form ideas, and insufferable references to wrestlers and 90’s television shows.
Well, usually my notes take on a bit of a narrative as a game progresses; I inevitably start ordering comments into Offense, Defense, Special Teams, Coaching, etc. buckets, so by the end I’ve got my talking points, as they are, laid out. Given the opponent, I figured they’d be succinct and pretty general; it’s hard to derive too much from a blowout.
Well, by the last 4 minutes of the game, my notes spanned 2 pages typed and, if my keyboard was both sentient and possessed the necessary funds to file documents with a court, would be Exhibit A of a battery suit brought against me. People joke about how typing “OMFG” or “ROFL” negates the emotion you are attempting to convey, like telling someone how funny something is instead of actually laughing. But part of the reason you use these shorthands, though, is because “nfsakjf528095353u55b25jewrnijrggrehjigh3u04u-421” followed by your dog fleeing the room is hard to convey in words. So yeah, based on my notes…
Worst: Goliath has Fans Too
I’m usually not one to complain too much about announcers except if they go full Spielman and openly root for one team over the other, but the announcers were extremely excited about the possibility of Akron beating UM. And that got me thinking; seemingly everyone loves the David vs. Goliath matchups that end with David victorious. At first blush, it totally makes sense; David represents the everyman, overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds with character, ingenuity, and guile. To root for David is to root for the human spirit and the impossible dream. Rooting for Goliath is like rooting for the house in blackjack.
But here’s the thing; being “Goliath” is not free of context, nor is it purely a “you vs. them” dynamic wherein everyone agrees how the story should end. In other words, Goliath has fans too, and in most cases they don’t view themselves as the bully, the victor, the unstoppable force OR the immovable object. Goliath is just a guy who is blessed with some physical advantages that he honed with rigorous training and passionate loyalty to a cause. In the eyes of Goliath, he’s entering into fair combat against another warrior who just happens to be smaller than him and who wields a slingshot. He’s not Razor Ramon or Vince McMahon, “heels” personified who want nothing more than to ruin the face’s day. No, He’s not the “bad guy”, unless “being tall and strong” and winning most of the time are dastardly traits. He is the Big Bad because the only lens used to view him is as the seemingly unattainable or antithesis model, the personification of David’s shortcomings.
So saying you love David vs. Goliath games is really saying you like to see the big guy lose not necessarily because you have a rooting interest in David or against Goliath, but because you don’t want to be reminded that not everyone has David’s problems. On some level, you hold Goliath’s strengths and accomplishments against him, believing something must be cosmically wrong to explain his winning ways, and that a loss will somehow right this off-kilter universe.
But that really isn’t fair to either party; Akron is just a bad FBS program trying to find its footing and UM is the winningest program in college football history. UM has all of those wins because, for most of its existence, it has fielded talented, well-coached teams that beat other ones on the football field. Akron, not so much, but that isn’t because of something UM did. And, humorously, the tables are turned in the other “football”: Akron has been one of the best college soccer teams for years now while UM is the “upstart” that scored a major 1-0 upset over the Zips a couple of years ago during an otherwise poor season.
I’d say millions of people partook in today’s game in some way (live, TV, radio, internet, etc.), and a significant number of them are probably fans of UM football. They wanted to see UM win for any number of reasons, and few if any thought Akron winning would be a “good thing”. Russians certainly didn’t think losing to the US at the Olympics was a good idea, nor are Phi Slamma Jamma fans clamoring for Lorenzo Charles (RIP) memorial jerseys, and I’m guessing Lloyd Carr isn’t sending Armanti Edwards holiday cards. Had Akron pulled off the win, it would have been heralded as a huge upset both for the year as well as historically, and people who “like” upsets would have another moment to cheer about. But for the fans of Goliath, David is just the guy who got lucky, and no amount of culturally-endorsed schadenfreude will change that.
Today’s game ended with Goliath winning, though it was obviously closer than expected. The narrative is that Akron gave UM all they could handle, and that in a game of inches UM got lucky that Akron came up a bit short. But it was a game that both teams had a chance to win, and this time Goliath benefitted from a missed opportunity; history hasn’t always been so kind. I’m certainly not going to complain.
Worst: It’s a Win? (as said in the voice of Ron Burgundy)
Yeah, I’m not going to be one of those people who says it would have been a better “learning experience” if they had lost; I’m a results-based grader so a win is always better than a loss. That said, this is up there with narrowly beating Indiana and Illinois under RR and a turrible 10-7 win against 5-6 Utah in 2002 (a game I attended and apparently blocked from my memory until now). And unlike those games where you could at least point to one element of the performance being a positive, it isn’t really hypoerbole or “ESPN talking head”-ole to say UM was beat in all three phases of the game.
Best: It’s a Win
But it’s a victory for UM, and 3-0 is 3-0. Just ask MSU, whose offense finally eclipsed the defense is scoring 3 games into the season. Teams have bad games, and for all of the hell the players are likely to have rain down on them by the coaching staff this week, it would be immensely worse if Saturday’s game had ended with an “L” on the schedule. This game probably ratchets down the expectations a notch if you saw UM as a top-5 outfit, but otherwise it was a close shave for a team with top-15 talent. Given the number of massive upsets this year, it could have been far worse.
I know the Internet is the ultimate echo chamber for cynicism, and this blog’s particular composition only accentuates that property, but just like was a need to pump the brakes a bit after the ND game, this game doesn’t not necessarily mean you need to stock your panic room quite yet.
Best: I don’t want…your life!
One of the more underrated moments in Varsity Blues is the “hungover” game played by the West Canaan Coyotes after Mox, Tweeder, Billy Bob, Wendell, and Lance spent a night at the Landing Strip Gentleman’s Club*. Hungover and clearly off their game, they lose in embarrassing fashion and Bud Kilmer turns to threatening Mox about his scholarship to Brown if he doesn’t shape up and fall in line.
In no way am I insinuating that UM’s play against Akron was caused by every starter heading off to Deja Vu in Ypsi Thursday night, but it clearly looked like a team that was out of sorts from the outset. UM did force a 3-and-out on Akron’s first drive and followed it up with the long TD by Funchess, but for most of that first half the offense looked lost and the defense held tough but couldn’t generate much of a pass rush. And once the 2nd half began and Akron made some adjustments offensively, the defense struggled to keep them off the field. Plus, Gibbons missed his first kick since Purdue and Matt Wile shanked a couple of punts, resulting in an average of 33 yards per kick despite “booming” one 54 yards. As a couple of people noted (including Ace), if it was against any other team but Akron, UM probably would have been run off the field. But still, just a disorienting performance.
Of course, Notre Dame also had a pretty off performance against Purdue, so who knows where everyone was last night.
* I know this is saying a great deal in a movie where James Van Der Beek is a Texas QB, literally every play is either a bone-shattering tackle or a 50-yard TD (seriously, watch the clip and you’ll see 4-5 NFL Blitz-style flying tackles), and a HS team is allowed to basically coach itself once Jon Voight leaves at halftime – you’ll notice no assistant coaches take over or are even on the screen, but the most unbelievable part of that movie is a HS health teacher moonlighting as a stripper in a city of, oh, 10,000 people in Texas and NOBODY notices until some HS kids see her act. I mean, that club looked packed on (I’m guessing) a weekday night, and early on the movie establishes that Miss Davis must be making decent money from her dancing in order to afford a Mustang convertible, so it is clearly a popular place. Yet her double life remains a mystery both before and after this night. Simply unbelievable.
UM averaged 5.5 ypc* and 8.3 ypa** while holding the Zips to 3.6 ypc*** and 6.3 ypa**** which look good on paper, but as the astute reader might have picked up, those little *’s aren’t just looking for a party to crash; they are massive caveats. First the rushing: Gardner averaged 10.3 ypc on his 103 yards, showcasing the game-breaking speed that can turn a collapsing pocket into a 36 yard TD. Fitz recorded 71 more yards on 19 carries, but didn’t crack 4 ypc against the #80 rushing defense in the country. And while I initially thought he was the recipient of some bad luck out there due to penalties on runs, the only one apparently was a holding penalty by Gallon on a 3-yarder. Of his 19 carries, 7 were for losses and 8 were for minimal gain (though one was the TD). He recorded 65 yards on 4 other carries, and added a nice 27 yard reception to goose the numbers up a bit. On most runs he was engulfed in the backfield or had trouble locating holes either because they weren’t there or a momentary hesitation closed them too quickly. I’ll get into my feelings about the line play later, but this was not a banner day for a guy who has played reasonably well this year given the obvious issues in front of him.
As for that 8.3 ypa, that is .7 ypa below Akron’s 114th-ranked pass defense, and came with a 53% completion perctange and 3 INTs, including a horrible screen-ish pass that was returned for a TD. Nobody other than Gallon caught more than 2 passes, and while Funchess had a nice day on paper with a TD and 65 yards on his two catches, one was a 48-yard TD run that was aided by some poor angles and tackling by Akron, a theme they continued on Chesson’s only catch (and first of his career) on the day, a 33-yard TD where he was pinballed toward the endzone by an Akron defender. Criminally underused Drew Dileo was held without a catch, so hopefully this week Brian will be able to release that particular Kraken.
The defense did marginally better, holding Akron to about their season average rushing and about a yard less passing, but those numbers were put up against UCF and the zombified remains of the 4th President of the United States, er, eponymously-named FCS James Madison University. And Akron had 4 drives longer than 45 yards, including two 11-play drives that ended with a TD and the final drive, as well as a 5-play drive that ended with Wilson’s INT in the endzone. UM could not get Akron off the field in the 4th, including giving up a number of long completions and “they only need 5 yards for the first down, let’s give the slot receiver a 10-yard cushion” plays.
So yeah, statistics should be trusted only as far as they can be thrown, which against UM’s defense today is apparently both quite far and with minimal coverage.
Okay, okay, that’s a little mean. But it was pretty bad out there.
Worst: Push it!
So you know how earlier I mentioned that statistics sometimes lie? Well, a big reason why UM’s running game struggled was the continued inability of the offensive line to consistently block for anyone. Against Akron, Fitz had 15 carries that resulted in either lost yardage or minimal gains, and a significant number of them were because one or more Akron defenders were in the backfield rather quickly. It remains a team that is strong on the edges (though both Lewan and Schofield missed a couple of blocks) and “maturing” or “weak” (depending on your viewpoint) in the middle. Akron didn’t seem like it was doing anything special defensively, yet they always seemed to have the number’s advantage at the point of attack. And while they only recorded a single sack, Gardner was harassed most of the day by the line without excessive use of blitzes or disguised coverages. I’m not expecting major changes on the line next week, but this is a team that can’t consistently get 4-5 yards a pop on the ground without the QB getting involved, and that is not a sustainable situation during the conference season unless Devin remains healthy throughout, which would be a minor miracle.
As for the defensive line, to say the “Right to Rush 4” mantra needs to be redefined would be an understatement. A unit with a decent amount of hype heading into the season failed to register a sack on 49 attempts, though the defense was credited with 8 QB hits. Still, it took an all-out blitz to get pressure on the QB to end the game (reminiscent of the Points-a-Palooza some years back), and when your undersized tackle (Black) is your most consistent pass rusher against a MAC team, that isn’t good news. I guess the jury is still out on Frank Clark, but at this point the judge expects to hear a verdict by the end of lunch. It certainly didn’t help that Mattison seemed reticent about using more than 4 linemen to get pressure, and as a couple of people noted in the Liveblog the stunting was glaringly obvious, but again you shouldn’t have to overly gameplan for a team coming off a 1-11 season.
Best: Times are Changing
Now, I know I just spent a couple of sections dumping on Akron and minimizing their influence on today, but they deserve quite a bit of credit for playing UM to a standstill. Maybe 25-30 years teams like Akron are just happy to be playing in the Big House and are overwhelmed by the moment, but in today’s college football ecosystem everybody believes his team can beat anyone else. For even with Akron’s fallow history, it is still an FBS team with D1 players on it, and given the exposure and resources available to virtually all such programs nobody should be surprised they didn’t just wilt as soon as The Victors played. Terry Bowden may have looked like he ate his daddy Bobby before the game, but he’s still got a career record of 142-75-2 (including 47-17-1 while at Auburn), and certainly knows how to beat teams like UM. They played solid, largely mistake-free football and took advantage of UM’s miscues. They played like a major college football team, and this game should be yet another reminder that “MACrifices” isn’t a reality in today’s football landscape.
Best: Tackling, and the Lack Thereof (part deux)
Last week I mentioned how refreshing it was seeing the other team (in that case, ND) miss some crucial tackles while UM largely wrapped up quickly. Well, count both Funchess’s and Chesson’s TDs as beneficiaries of some dodgy tackling by the Zips. By comparison, UM typically tackled guys at contact, though Jourdan Lewis had a pretty bad “tackle” of Pohl as he rushed for a first down late in the game. There were also the coverage issues with the corners and linebackers, especially in the middle of the field where D’Orazio was seemingly open all day. This definitely felt like a gameplan limitation, at least initially, but it was troubling that late in the game receivers were able to get open in the secondary with players trailing them by 2-3 yards.
Worst: Hitting Reset
Last week I waxed poetically about Gardner being a modern-day unstoppable video game QB, UM’s answer to Michael Vick circa Madden 2004. He was like UTG Trevor Siemian crossed with a mongoose, and it was glorious. Like Vick in the game, it just felt unfair to have him on your team, and to talk about him in front of your vanquished opponent is to welcome scorn and possibly some shoving.
Well, against Akron people saw the other side of the videogame analogy: when the computer “cheats” and everything that could possibly go wrong does. Suddenly, your all-world QB can’t complete a pass except to the other team, your RB can’t get a yard beyond the line of scrimmage, you are getting called for penalties on any positive play, and even digital Texas’s GERG thinks you are playing too soft defensively. By the time a defensive end houses an interception off a screen pass, you’re diving for the reset button while cursing Alan Turing and his stupid face.
Of course, in real life that’s just the third quarter of the game, and you still have to watch and hope that somehow, someway your team figures it all out enough to pull out a victory. Against Akron, Gardner and the offense did just enough in the end for the win, and on a seemingly snakebitten game they can lick their wounds and give it another shot.
Best: Even YMRMFSPA had Bad Games
So the Vince Young analogies have been trotted out for Devin since his game against Northwestern, and with his improvisational skills, strong arm, and galloping strides it is hard not to see a bit of the college star in him. Unfortunately, Gardner also showed the same characteristics that drove Texas fans crazy early on in Young’s career, with 4 turnovers, including a TaINT, and some happy feet that resulted in missed receptions and poor throws. If you check out Young’s gamelog from his first full season, you’ll see the same tantalizing mix of promise and growing pains: 5 TDs against no turnovers against Texas Tech following 8/23 for 86 yards against Oklahoma and 3/9 with 2INTs against Missouri. After those games, people we calling for Chance Mock to play at QB, and if that name doesn’t ring a bell it’s because he didn’t do anything to make people forget about Young. People in A2 forget this because of the game Young had against the Wolverines in the Rose Bowl, but Young finished with a 12:11 ratio on the season and had some tough performances even in wins. The next year he emerged as a breakthrough player and led Texas to the title.
I’m not saying Gardner is going to do that, but this game was a reminder of how fickle and infuriating the maturation process can be at times, and that the same player can have a stinker like today AND a performance against ND without there being anything wrong with him. I suspect he’ll play better next week, but regardless of his performance it won’t change this past game or how the future plays out. Every game is another data point, and sometimes you don’t realize there are outliers until time and distance it provides have given you some perception. Gardner wasn’t a Heisman winner after last week and he’s not a bum after this one, but instead a work in progress like the rest of the team.
I’m wheeling out my extra-tall soapbox now, so if you don’t want to hear my complain about fandom in general and UM followers in particular, feel free to skip to the next section.
What has always driven me crazy about the fandom in sports is the moralizing and dime-store psychoanalysis people place on players’ motivations. A team plays well and people lionize the “heart” shown by the winners while questioning that of the loser. Every down and distance becomes a Greek tragedy played out with a pigskin, and we want to equate higher meaning with 3rd-down conversions and missed blocks. But that’s the thing – it’s just a game, and teams win and lose, players play well or poorly, for reasons that have nothing to do with their moral fiber or ability to “lead” men.
Both during and after the game, there was a contingent of fans who tried to make the game a referendum on these players. They questioned the leadership displayed by Taylor Lewan apparently not getting the line “up” to block, as if Kalis, Miller, and Glasgow would have held their blocks if only they had cared more. Gardner threw INTs not because he made a bad read or had a bit of bad luck, but because he wasn’t a leader out there and his receivers didn’t have confidence in him. And in the postgame, when both Lewan and Gardner said they promised a better effort next week, people on the blog questioned their motives and suggested they had “heard this before” and UM still lost, proving that fans shouldn’t operate heavy machinery following a game because their blindness will undoubtedly cause accidents.
Sports were oftentimes used as stand-ins for battle both in real life as well as in narrative devices; we speak of “warriors of the gridiron” and its bond with iconography of good vs. evil and right vs. wrong is hard to ignore. But in the end, sport is just a game, with winners and losers according to the rules of the contest. To try to derive some greater meaning from it, to look deep into a man’s soul on a 3-yard run at the end of the game and hope to identify his humanity, is a foolish exercise. I know people will continue to act this way long after I’m cold and in the ground, but I still hope that one day sports will be treated as the athletic contests they are, not the day of reckoning some yearn for them to embody.
Best: Quick Hits
A couple of points that aren’t really worth their own sections:
- I thought the secondary played okay, though the middle of the field was open seemingly for days at a time. They also seemed to line up yards off receivers that didn’t seem able to really beat them in a race. And to Akron’s credit, a couple of long receptions were the result of good throws; the one where I believe Taylor was beaten down the sideline in the 4th quarter by Smith was a great throw as much as any failure by the coverage. That said, surprised Lewis got the nod over Stribling out there, especially given the size differences.
- Al Borges called a decent enough game in my opinion, though he seemed afraid of running the veer too much early on even though Akron had no answer. The inability of the line to run block certainly didn’t help; when UM needed yards late in the game they ran directly behind Lewan, which was obviously a positive but not great news for your inside running game.
- I remain puzzled that Hoke did not go for it at 4-and-1 on UM’s 45 early on in the 4th quarter. The numbers say putning is the right call, but one yard with Gardner in the gun seems quite doable. I’m not a big fan of “momentum”, but getting a yard there gives UM a fresh set of downs and doesn’t put the ball on the foot of your admittedly-skittish punter who proceeded to shank the ball anyway. Plus, I believe this was right after Akron nearly blocked the last punt.
- Norfleet appears to have lost return privileges at least on punts, with Dileo back there in the second half. That feels about right; I know Norfleet has shown great potential, but he continues to make the routine catches scary and still doesn’t seem to have a great sense of how to handle returns. And with Dileo back there, it allowed the BTN announcers to talk about how he can run in space. Because if there is one element of Dileo’s game we can ALL agree on, it is his blazing speed in space.
Best: Release the Hounds
The good news is that the UConn Huskies are an absolute tire-fire and UM should be rather motivated heading into the Cabella’s parking lot er Husky Stadium next week. I hope for everyone’s sake it is a short game and next week’s recap is “Best: Everything.”
This will be a bit of an abbreviated post because, well, 59-9 tells a pretty compelling story. Sure, I will try to tease out some larger trends from the game, but the biggest takeaway is that UM destroyed a MAC team in the way you expect the winningest program in college football history to do so, and nobody really seemed that surprised. Given the relative struggles the past half-dozen years, that’s the biggest Best I can point out.
Best: The least sexy 59 points you’ll ever see
As Brian noted in his “Five Questions, Five Answers” preview, the Al Borges offense we’re going to see is not the spread that was trotted out under RR and limped along until the end of the Denard era. While I take issue with the “wrong side of history” supposition of this decision, I agree with Brian that Borges’s offense will remain dynamic and creative enough that the ghost of Mike Debord will stay in his comically 90’s room for the foreseeable future.
That’s like, totally your opinion
But 52 points were scored by this offense without much in the way of trickeration or going for 2 points on the first two TDs, you twerp. It was an efficient, dominant performance with wrinkles here and there but also a consistent scheme that was frankly missing during the Transition. As Ace noted there are questions about the line, but Kalis MANBALLED a couple of guys and held up well; I expect Miller to struggle at times but should improve with more reps to at least competent. This offense will undoubtedly struggle at times when teams are able to collapse the inside of the line, and the WRs need to create more separation than they did today, but overall it felt like the type of performance one expected from this unit. It should be the best in the conference unless OSU figures out how to block people, and even then I think the plethora of backs and TEs will continue to keep Devin reasonably clean and away from too many hits running the ball.
Best: Who needs redshirts?
The usual suspects played – Morris, Smith, and Green on offense; Charlton and Thomas on defense. Not unexpected burning men like Gedeon, Butt, and Stribling also suited up, and while I’m a little annoyed if Gedeon only plays on special teams this year, you have to think the coaches like what he brings on defense to push him into a more prominent role. Lewis is a bit of a head scratcher, but Norfleet had some troubles early on with returns and Lewis is a shifty guy in space. But overall, I’m not a fan of redshirting except when the guy in question really wouldn’t help you (i.e. most linemen, small-ish WRs, anybody in the secondary unless they are unbelievable), and basically everyone who played acquitted himself well enough to warrant more playing time in some capacity.
So yeah, the defense looked REALLY fast out there. Thomas on the punt block practically yanked the ball out of the punter’s hands, and throughout the game CMU players were hit as soon as they touched the ball. Early on it seemed like Countess was playing off the WRs too much, but then every time the ball was sent their way he stuck the receiver almost immediately. Other than one or two plays toward the end, the secondary kept everyone in front of them and rarely did you see much separation. Under Hoke, it sometimes felt like Mattison and co. had to gameplan teams into spots to compensate for a lack of athleticism at certain positions; at least after today it looks like those limitations are disappearing quickly. It isn’t quite LSU/Alabama speedsters out there quite yet, but this is another check in the “good recruiting” checklist for this staff.
Worst: We can’t have nice things
Listen, I’m as neurotic and cynical as the next guy when it comes to sports, but at some point it just gets old. I will admit to being a bit down about the early play calling and will remain a Borges questioner until such time as I learn how college offenses work, but at some point the liveblog became one big bit*hing session+ once it was clear UM was going to run away with the game. All of a sudden you have people questioning Derrick Green’s ability to run through contact, Frank Clark’s inability to get to the QB (I will admit to being in this group initially), and every non-TD run or non-intercepted completion as proof that some component of the team wasn’t “working” or was a point of concern. The hive mind of the liveblogs can adopt misguided stances and I get that it shouldn’t be taken seriously, but the team just scored 59 points against a bowl team, held them to a couple of field goal attempts with 3(!) of 14 drives longer than 30 yards, and averaged 5.1 yards per carry and 10.5 yards per attempt. They played pretty well folks; let’s enjoy the win for at least a day before we all try to Gladwell our way through trends from one game.
+ I never understand *’ing out the vowel in a cuss word. I think we all know that “f*ck” doesn’t refer to one-time Tiger’s first basemen Robert Fick, yet everyone apparently thinks removing the ‘i’ in sh*t is going to throw everyone off the scent. Either blot out the whole word or leave it alone. /HOTSPORTSTAKE
Had 106 yards on 4 returns, and was a couple of broken tackles away from housing at least 1 of those returns. He also recorded 38 yards on his one run, and overall looked like a dynamic component of the offense. He’ll never be an every-down back and I doubt he’ll reach the heights of Breaston (who seemingly was both faster a bit more elusive in small spaces), but he gives this team a legitimate return man for the first time since, I don’t know, McGuffie, and the type of guy who can take those once-a-game Ronald Bellomy WR runs and make them work because the other team can’t immediately assume that’s why he’s on the field.
Worst: Out of Nowhere!
Fair warning: this section is going to be one big wrestling analogy. Since I was around 6 years old, I’ve been a huge fan of professional wrestling. I watch it on television, Hulu, and Youtube every chance I can. I once rented every Wrestlemania (9 of them at the time) and watched them straight, without blinking, and probably lost a gallon of water with the drool that fell from my mouth. I loved Jake Roberts and Damien so much I cried when Earthquake “squished” him during their feud. I was a little Hulkster, then a member of the Warrior nation, followed by a heartbroken Rocker fan (seeing Shawn kick Marty Jannetty and throw him through the barbershop window taught me to never trust anyone in a leather jacket). I was a fan of the Dangerous Alliance and marked out so hard when Stunning Steve became Stone Cold and ushered in the Attitude Era along with DX, the Rock and Sock Connection, Kurt Angle, and washed-up MMA guys like Tank Abbott and Ken Shamrock. Hogan creating the NWO with Kevin Nash and Scott Hall set the world on fire for a bit, and Goldberg speared anyone with a pulse into next Tuesday. TLC wasn’t a way to treat a lady or a TV channel with weird shows about future diabetes sufferers; it was a brutal contest with enough splintered tables and broken limbs to remind you how fragile the human body is. Innovators like Chris Jericho and Rey Mysterio showed you little guys could rise to the top, and Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit shed the “Vanilla Midgets” label to become champions even though their careers ended suddenly (and in Benoit’s case, horribly). Even with the relatively fallow period that followed Brock Lesnar’s departure to NFL training camps and, ultimately, the UFC, I still enjoyed watching Batista, JBL, Orton, John Cena, and the rest soldier on. And with the ascension of “Indy” guys likes CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, plus the healthy growth of the development system and the indy feds like ROH, PWG, CZW, and the like, it is a good time to be a fan.
Over this time, I’ve seen the medium evolve and grow, and mostly for the better. Guys train harder and take better care of their bodies, match quality is higher, and storytelling has evolved to the point where major sports blogs have writers dedicated to covering it. It isn’t necessarily still real to me, but I definitely see it maintaining a place in my sports life going forward.
One change I have noticed over the years, though, is the proliferation of “spontaneous” in-ring moments and moves that you just didn’t see back in the 80’s and early 90’s. It used to be when a guy was going to hit his “finisher”, he had some setup – Hogan gave you the big boot before running the ropes and dropping the leg; Ric Flair gave you the knee breaker and then actually had to lock in the figure-four; and even “quick hitters” like the Ultimate Warrior and Shawn Michaels still had some setup before they finished you off with their splash or superkick. But around the time Austin hit the scene, guys started in with the reversals and the quick finishers; Stunners to everyone, Diamond Cutters off chokeslams, Tombstones off cross bodies and Sweet Chin Musics off jumping attacks. Now every move was “out of nowhere”, culminating in Randy Orton RKO’ing literally everybody off ever-more convoluted triple-lindys. As Brandon Stroud of With Leather always laments, guys just need to stop jumping around Orton and they’ll win all the time.
So what’s my point? Well, one of the things that has changed about following college sports is that because of the multitude of mediums covering the games, you really aren’t “surprised” by anything before the teams step on the field. Sure, Gordon being suspended for the first game was relatively unknown, but even then there was a board post on the topic two hours before the game. I knew the vast majority of the depth chart weeks before it was released, heard the insider buzz about certain players stepping up while others floundered, and even knew the basic structure of the offense and defense, including quite a few wrinkles, despite the best attempts by the Fort to keep them under wraps. On one hand it makes fandom more engrossing and “fun” because my knowledge is more thorough and nuanced, but the “Christmas morning” feel of watching the team line up that first game is lost a bit when you’ve already read about the N64 and Easy-Bake oven in the nondescript box three weeks ago. And with all that information, expectations can explode to unreasonable levels; witness the post above with people complaining about the young running backs.
The inexorable march of progress is such that we’ll only get more insider information and in-depth analyses of players and recruits, and on the whole that is a positive for both fans and the game. To be a well-rounded fan, you need to read and keep up on your teams to an almost-unhealthy degree; otherwise you are basically Skip Bayless or Lou Holtz without the clothing budget. About the only time you can ever be surprised anymore is when you….
Best: Play the Game
For despite all of the predictions and charts, the acronyms and the tomes written about the game, nobody knows will happen during the game until the teams actually line up. Fitz looked great out there, making cuts and accelerating through holes opened up be a much-improved offensive line. Devin looked shaky earlier but played well in the end, accounting for over 200 yards in about 2.5 quarters of work. Morris, Green, and Smith all had their turns out there and showed promise. the depth on defense, previously a figment of the fevered imagination of our benevolent overlord, showed up in spades. Countess looked like the corner everyone expected last year before he was hurt, while Thomas, Wilson, Stribling, Morgan, Ross, and Gordon all stepped into more prominent roles and played well (I recognize Wilson blew at least one assignment). Even guys like Clark, whom I’m more down on than others, played reasonably well. I know it’s one game, but it was nice to be surprised by guys actually playing football in a game that mattered.
Worst: Big Ten!
Oh where to start. MSU struggled to move the ball against the other, other directional school last night, and no amount of BTN spit-shining will change that. As noted earlier, OSU went for 2 twice because (a) Meyer wanted to make a point, and (b) that point is that he is a *ick. And even with all of that early success, a 4-8 Buffalo team was touch-and-go with the #2 team in the country, at home, for most of the game. Illinois looked competent against Southern Illinois but still only won by 8, Cincy pounded Purdue by 35 as perennial Most Awesome Name candidate Munchie Legaux stood tall in the pocket. PSU held on against Syracuse but looked like it will be years until the effects of those sanctions allow them to regain their stronger position in the conference, and Wiscy ran over UMass like they always do against overmatched squads who are lactose intolerant. At least they can run the ball with James White. Oh yeah, and Iowa lost to NIU because of course they would. At time of this post teams like NW and Nebraska are still playing, but I doubt we’ll learn much about either team win or lose (though if they lose to Wyoming and/or Cal, I’m going to book my tickets for Indy tomorrow).
But overall, it was not a banner weekend for the conference. The Big 10 isn’t great at football outside of the top couple of teams; that’s been an annoying reality for a couple of years now. The conference isn’t dying or falling behind anyone not named the SEC, but the Big 2, Little 10 mantra is gaining traction every day, and I’m not seeing much evidence down the pipeline that it will change any time soon.
Best: UTL II
Hey, it might be fun…
What amazes me about this site is the amount of content posted during the dead of summer, when people should be, you know, outside and not worrying about the nickelback (NTN)* on passing downs. Mind you, I say this with 100% absolute love and appreciation, as it really makes those bathroom br…er, interminable time between seasons a bit more bearable. The only problem, if you’d call it that, is that with such great, consistent diarists like Mathlete, Six Zero, Seth, CRex, and LSAClassOf2000 (and I’m sure to be missing others, so my apologies in advance), it makes it tough for people without advanced knowledge of mathematics, drawing skills, or hilarious fish-out-of-water tales to think of anything useful to post. Luckily, I’m here to post random thoughts on football without any of those messy facts, charts, or thoughtful analysis that bogs down everyone else. But I will definitely make consistent references to late 80’s/early 90’s pop culture, because nothing draws eyeballs like Battletoads puns.
And let it be known that I have yet to receive my copy of HTTV (available now for ordering if you are a horrible person who didn’t love Brian enough to sponsor his Kickstarter because you spent all of your money on funding a Deathstar), so if anything happens to overlap that is purely coincidental. So no need for a spoiler alert, but perhaps a didn’t-mean-to-tap-into-the-hivemind-alert. Also, this is not exhaustive – I don’t have the knowledge of football that other writers here possess, so me saying “Lewan is really good and Mattison knows how to coach” isn’t going to be ground-breaking; I’m going for a “key points” approach here. So without further ado, I bring you a preseason Best and Worst for Michigan (and college in general) football in 2013.
* I’m not a fan of all Nickelback songs, but that is one awesome movie tie-in song!
Best: Finally the focus is on actual football
While it is undeniable that college sports drive a multi-billion-dollar industry (but don’t tell EA that), the actual seasons for football and basketball are about 4 months each, with only a bit of overlap. So after the first week of January and/or the first week of April, the “official” engine driving the gravy train for network and cable television, websites, merchandisers, etc. shuts down for about 8 months. Unfortunately, there are still 24 hours a day that need to be filled with something, whether it be talking heads arguing over “issues” and obscure hypotheticals, former athletes pontificating on the need to have “played the game” to really understand why throwing on 3rd-and-12 is the right call, or scanning the police blotter in every college town to see if the Ven diagram of college kids getting drunk and/or fighting and college football/basketball players intersects.
So when the football season ends, the focus immediately turns to NSD, wherein a bunch of grown men’s and women’s emotions wax and wane according to the whims of high-schoolers participating in very weird hat dances.
|One of these is awesome, one is insanely awesome, and one is Denard rocking a great look.|
March is dominated by commercials for Southwest Airlines and Capital One credit cards with a dusting of basketball sprinkled in, and just when that madness ends, we get inundated with draft combine reports and the respective NBA and NFL drafts. And as the weather gets warmer, you finally think “self, what else can they report about? Kids are not even in school; at most they will be some puff pieces about charity work and new coaches getting used to a particular school.” But no, you are instead bombarded with stories about kids slacking off, whether or not a former coach is somehow partially responsible for a suspected murderer because the Program actually happens IRL, and old men talking about “big changes” that will only make things more convoluted and disjointed as sports go full Voltron with super-conferences and paychecks.
I guess my point is that in a few short weeks, fans of college football will actually be able to celebrate the sport itself, even if the depressing accoutrement isn’t going anywhere. Those recruits will now be in the lineup (or at least at practice), the returning players will be settling into their roles, and all of the coach-speak/playbook prognostications/expectations will manifest themselves in an actual product on the field. The silly season is over; bring on the games.
Worst: Addition + Subtraction != Reality
One of the common refrains I’ve read recently about the upcoming season is the old “addition by subtraction” on offense as Gardner takes over for Robinson at QB. As the thinking goes, the loss of Robinson and his career 10,776 yards of offense will be mitigated by Devin’s superior throwing ability and a more balanced, Al Borges-friendly offensive system.
This phrase has always driven me crazy, if for no other reason than football doesn’t work like math. A football team is comprised of innumerable players, coaches, opponents, etc.; we’re talking thousands of meaningful variables. Change one and you might have a major effect on the system, but the far more likely outcome is that nothing demonstrably happens or, worse, the output is worse. And it’s this last scenario that really scares me about losing Denard and installing Devin at QB full-time.
Just because you’ll be able to shove a slightly less misshapen peg into an ever-changing hole doesn’t mean the entire enterprise, or even a component like the offense, will function better a year later. Other than Jeremy Gallon’s mountain goat imitation and The Threat keeping the chains moving, the passing attack is long on potential and short on real results (I believe Funchess will have a solid year catching the ball, but when you can’t block at UM you aren’t going to be on the field much). Fitz’s recovery sounds promising but will he be the guy who ran for 5.6 ypc in 2011 or struggled to break 4 in 2012? I don’t know, and while there is guru-approved talent in the backfield (Green and Smith) and is a position where young talent can flourish, nobody with shoelaces has been able to consistently gain yardage on the ground for years now. And while in years past defenses had to respect the ability of UM’s QB/RB/WR/braided decoy to bust a massive run, Devin isn’t that type of player and defenses will treat him (and by extension this offense) accordingly.
Of course, Devin isn’t the perfect Al Borges QB either, but in theory he’ll be better able to throw downfield accurately and COMPLETELY IGNORE ANY TYPE OF SCREEN PASSES, amongst other things. Call me skeptical, but I still see this offense living and dying with the line giving whoever lines up at RB the time and space necessary to get into the second level. Protecting Devin will definitely help as well, but he’s enough of an athlete to buy himself some time on obvious passing downs if necessary; limiting the number of times he lines needing 8+ yards for a first because they tried this twice would be great.
|Unleashing the dragon is not officially endorsed by Al Borges, but he’s not officially against it either.|
Best: The Flying V
One of my favorite movies growing up was D2: The Mighty Ducks, the sequel to, I don’t know, the Joshua Jackson vehicle The Mighty Ducks. It’s 100% crap if you watch it critically; rampant product placement, jingoism and mindless flag-waving up the wazoo, and the most lax enforcement of international junior hockey rules known to man (seriously, the team adds players to the squad midway through the tournament by signing them up after a street hockey game). But by gawd, 13-year-old me loved this movie so much, and mostly because the creators pulled the comic book staple of expanding the Might Ducks universe by introducing new characters with exactly one “secret/mutant” power/character trait. Now you had the super-tough guy Dean to team up with Fulton (himself mostly known for his rocket shot) to make the Bash Brothers. Julie “The Cat”, with her lightning-quick reflexes, could even defend the previously-unstoppable triple deke. Luis Mendoza was the fastest guy the ice had ever seen, but couldn’t stop to save his life. And I guess to fill out the roster they added a cowboy (Dwayne) and the aforementioned street hockey star Russ (more on him later).
So why does this matter? Well, for a couple of years now, the RB situation at UM always left like a cut-rate casting of the Ducks, with guys trying to fill in the “power”, “speed”, “every down”, etc. roles but with limited success. They played hard and, at times, could fill in their roles admirably, but it should trouble people that even with Fitz’s decent 2011 season and barely playing his first year, Denard accounted for 42% of the team’s total rushing yards during his career. In virtually every circumstance, he was the best/only real option to move the ball on the ground, whether it be in short-yardage, designed first-down runs, even catching out of the backfield toward the end of last season.
This year, it feels like the situation will be improved if for no other reason than the talent in the backfield is significantly better than in years past. Even coming back from injury I expect Toussaint to be better than he was last season, and if he can’t line up full-time in the backfield is still a great change-of-pace back with (I hope) the elusiveness and phone-booth shiftiness everyone saw a couple of years ago. Green and Smith were some of the top RB recruits in the nation last year, and both look capable of running the ball 20-25 times a game if needed. Shallman and Kerridge should be able to provide some power in short yardage (I guess Rawls could improve here as well but who knows) and, in Shallman’s case, maybe a bit more in the open field. Guys like Hayes and Johnson look like situational backs who could move into the slot in certain formations and cause issues against LBs and Safeties. And to both make Brian happy as well as wedge in the reference that drove me to shoehorn the RB situation into this horrible analogy, Norfleet is the ultimate Knuckle-puck and a player I expect will help immensely in the return game if nothing else.
Getting yards on the ground still relies immensely on the guards and center blocking FAR better than they did last year, but it finally feels like the backfield could whip out a flying V of talent.
Worst: Where’d the “Gimmick” Go?
With Denard gone and Devin and co. clearly moving toward a more “classic” offense philosophy, I’m having to come to grips with the fact that the atypical elements of this team are rapidly disappearing. It always drove me crazy when people would call the spread option a “gimmick” offense, because last time I checked the goal was to score points as frequently as possible by maximizing your strengths and exploiting the weaknesses of your opponent. It wasn’t THAT long ago that people viewed the forward pass as (at best) a fad and (at worst) an affront to the game that killed 18 people and injured 100s, and even the multiple-receiving TE craze of recent years was scoffed at when it was first introduced. It’s an offense that clearly works in college, and the flexibility it gave in terms of play-calling helped make UM stand out a bit compared to the Big Ten-ness of offenses at outfits like Iowa, Wisconsin, and MSU.
While Al Borges’s offense looks to move the ball far better than other teams in the conference and should feature a fair number of wrinkles, the designed QB runs, unpredictable formations, and Worst Waldo Ever are probably relics of the past.
Worst: Stupid Elephant
Even though UM won’t be seeing Purdue until 2017 doesn’t mean that the Boilermakers couldn’t dramatically affect UM’s season as they unleashed Perry, clumsiness elephant in the world upon Jake Ryan and his precious ligaments. Though it sounds like he’ll be back in time for most of the conference slate, he’ll likely just be getting his conditioning and game-speed bearings when the meat of the schedule (@MSU, Nebraska, @NW, @Iowa, OSU) kicks in. Mattison Uber Alles and all that, but its going to be interesting to see how this defense responds without their leading tackler (88 total tackles) and pressure generator (team-leading 4.5 sacks). Let’s hope the hype around Clark, Ojemudia, and Washington is for real, because that line is going to have to generate a significantly better pass rush. You can only blitz so many times before good offenses figure out how to exploit those holes, and UM’s corners simply aren’t experienced/good enough right now to play on islands (though I do think they’ll be good).
And an aside: having recently had a birthday and solidly entering my early 30’s, I am definitely feeling my age when it comes to minor injuries. Whereas in years past running a couple extra miles or tweaking a muscle lifting took all of a day to recover from, now I’m limping around like I’ve got shrapnel in my ankle if I don’t stretch 10 minutes before jogging. So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that 20-something-year-olds can bounce back from these injuries in record-breaking time. It just blows my mind that Ryan will see the field 7 months after this injury. Heck, when Timmy’s Dad came back from his ACL injury and was a reasonable approximation of the player he was before, people thought it was a miracle.
You Decide: The (Near) End of an Era
I apologize to the mother of the equine that is about to be bludgeoned again, but we are rapidly nearing the end of the Rodriguez regime’s influence on Michigan football. While RR coached his last game on the UM sideline on January 1, 2011, the long tail from recruiting, player development, and (minor) cultural impact is still affecting Hoke’s regime years later. That’s the thing about coaching changes; the head guy may leave his office in a single day, but the fallout from his time at the helm literally remains for years. And we all know how it feels when a guy just lingers.
(* Full Disclosure: I remain a staunch believer that RR’s tenure at UM could have turned out quite differently if a handful of about eleventy billion things had gone differently. Your mileage with him will likely vary, but the guy who recruited Lewan, Denard, Gardner, Fitz, Ryan, etc. and obliterated a number of school records – admittedly both good and bad – could have worked in Ann Arbor.)
While we have seen some players from his regime leave in the past, the transition from last year’s squad to this year really feels like the first natural “purge” of RR’s most prominent players. The kids who left in 2013 were the first full RR class to matriculate, the kids who signed up after the 3-9 season and survived immense negative karma that welcomed them to campus, Stretchgate, the losing seasons, the Process, and, finally, some redemption.
The two names that I suspect stick out for most MGoBloggers are Denard and Kovacs; the Alpha and Omega that embodied the dichotomy and extreme variance that was a hallmark of the Rodriguez years.* Denard was the scintillating maestro of an offense that could be maddening for fans and opponents alike. At his peak, Denard was the most exciting player Michigan had fielded in a generation; his two transcendent games against ND rank up there with Biakabutuka against OSU, Braylon’s new Math, Chris Perry’s marathon versus MSU, Mercury Hayes leading the comeback against UVa, and a slew of performances by Woodson, Wheatley, and Hart. His flaws were well-documented (mediocre passer, injured, the sometimes-victim of being the best option on every play), but when he was on he gave fans the feeling of having the “ringer” in a game; of having the guy who was so much better than everyone else that it didn’t seem fair.
If Denard was the quintessential spread QB recruit, Jordan Kovacs epitomized the other mythos of Rich Rodriguez: gritty walk-on makes good. Sure, if you read his Wikipedia page the story feels incredibly predictable, but at the time I doubt anyone expected the kid with a single preferred walk-on offer at Toledo (yes, that Toledo) would become a team MVP and leave this program as one of the better safeties in its history. He just made plays, and I’ll admit that my testicles will probably retract a bit the first time someone goes deep on Michigan this year. I suspect Gordon will slide in adequately enough, but you don’t replace a mult-time conference award winner easily, regardless of the story told in getting him on the field.
This season will only accelerate the exodus of The Last Guy’s recruits, and while I am exceedingly happy about The Current Guy’s performance, it is still a bit sad to see some of the standard-bearers of this important era in Michigan’s history move on.
* You could also make a case for BWC, the biggest “can’t miss” prospect that flamed out under RR and only recovered under the steady hand of Hoke and Co. Because if there was a third defining element to the RR era, it was big-name prospects (Tate, Cullen, Cissoko, etc.) failing to live up to expectations.
Best: The Gap is Shortening
Of all the systemic and natural advantages certain programs have – coaching stability, location, tradition, money, SEC-ness – probably the most important to sustained success is player development & talent replenishment. The reason programs like Alabama, LSU, Stanford, Oregon, OSU, etc. have been successful recently is that the depth charts usually remain pretty flush with talent year over year. Sure, you’ll see holes pop up here and there as recruits flame out or unexpected attrition occur, but for the most part good teams stay that way because when you graduate one all-conference performer there’s usually a guy or two behind him to fill in those shoes.
If you take a look at the unofficial depth chart, you’ll notice there’s this massive wall of players for 2016 and 2017 crumbling to a handful of 2013 starters and regular contributors. This drop is less precarious on the defensive side than the offense, which makes sense given the coaching staff’s composition and their early focus when they took over, but it highlights the “blue-bloods”/“first-world problems” meme you see thrown around with consistently-great teams that, once upon a time, included UM.
A common refrain you hear from programs like Texas, OSU, UM, Alabama, OU, Oregon, etc. is that if they aren’t winning the conference and playing for the MNC/major bowl game, the season is a “disappointment” even if they win 9+ games. This inevitably drives other, less consistently successful teams crazy because it reeks of entitlement and a sense of superiority. While that is probably a part of it, the bigger reason is that these teams know they are so superior in talent compared to most of their competition that the band of variance for their season is relatively narrow; they’ll rarely lose more than 2-3 games a season because they probably only play 3-4 teams with comparable talent a year. Even with the odd upset, they’re not worried about making a bowl game or having a winning record unless something cataclysmic happens. Because they have depth, the natural ebb and flow from injuries and departures year-to-year is muted; the whole “we don’t rebuild, we just reload” refrain. That was never true under RR (I get into the lasting influence of his tenure below), and the later Carr years had their fair share of talent gaps that culminated in the Horror and the aftermath.
Hoke is obviously doing a great job replenishing the cupboard with top-notch talent, and I suspect that in a year or two the expectations for UM will return to their lofty heights. But if anyone thinks that there won’t be quite a few true/RS freshmen playing meaningful minutes this year, you’re going to be surprised. 8-5 is just as likely as 11-2 despite the seeming upward trajectory of the team in recent years.
Best: And in a Hurry!
This is a late addition given the events of the BBQ, but by gawd Hoke is doing work when it comes to skill position players, which was the last “real” concern people had regarding his recruiting acumen. In hindsight, his early focus on linemen and depth makes sense since a Denard-led offense should be able to score a reasonable number of points to hide many deficiencies on that side of the ball. But having already picked up some of the best RBs and WRs in last year’s class, he wasted no time grabbing some of the best WR, RB, and DB players early on for 2015. This won’t totally mitigate that gap between upperclassmen and the rest of the depth chart, but Hoke and co. are going to do their best to eradicate that issue with overwhelming force.
Best: We want people to pass?
After living through the weekly carpet-bombing by 5x Heisman Trophy winners like Ben Chappell, Scott Tolzien, and Chris Relf, the last thing I’d thought I’d be saying a couple years later is that the secondary looks like, if not a strength, at least an adequate part of the defense this year and one of the strengths of the team going forward. Taylor impressed me as the chief replacement for Countess after his own ACL injury (damn you Perry!), and veterans like Avery and camp surprise Hollowell should help fill in the gaps and limit the reliance on the younger talent. There definitely isn’t a Woodson, Hall, or Jackson in the backfield, but the corners should be able to stick with enough receivers on the schedule that teams will have to at least earn those long completions.
Best/Worst: Come On B1G
It has been discussed on this board many times before, but looking around the conference I’m not seeing any teams poised to make the leap up in competition. On one hand this should make UM fans happy; the Big 2, Little 10 situation pumps up the win totals. At the same time, when the third best team is either an in-transition Wiscy, a sanctioned PSU, or a meh MSU, it doesn’t speak highly of the strength of the conference and how it will be perceived when bowl selection and rankings roll around. I expect MSU’s defense to be one of the stronger units in the nation and for Wiscy and NW to continue to exceed their talent level, but you’d hope that “better than expected” wouldn’t be the ceiling for over half the teams in the conference.
So that’s it. Comment away below if you got this far, and tell me where I screwed up. I’m sure I did somewhere. John Navarre’s still the QB, right? Go Blue!
I know guys like new wallpapers now and then, this one is pretty sweet. Plus it was tweeted out by Devin Gardner, not sure who created to give proper credit.