This is our off-season strategy, and I love it
It's easy to forget that the "Hail Mary" is not just a football play, but also a prayer. While Brady Hoke's desired scheme is more Lloyd Carr than Rich Rodriguez, his coaching approach is certainly closer to Art Briles' play-calling than Mike DeBord's.
So what the hell does that mean?
I love--as I believe most do--Hoke's aggressiveness on fourth down. But we've learned quite a bit more about his willingness to go "all in" this off-season, and the result will be a 2014 team that looks drastically different from its predecessor. No less than six position changes that could affect the starting line-up, a new offensive coordinator, and significant scheme change on defense. This is the "Hail Mary" off-season: it is both a long, risky pass, and a prayer.
2013, to me, was The Season of Infinite Pain. It wasn't just the losing, it was the way we lost. The go-backwards offense that decided four downs were just too many combined with a defense that seemed to know exactly when to self-destruct made for a season that was excrutiatingly painful to watch, and I believe that the manner in which we lost (and won) was even more of a factor in our recruiting death spiral than the record itself. In the few games where the offense did click (Notre Dame, Indiana, Ohio) the defense couldn't keep-up, and the offensive line was never even close to adequate.
I hope we're all still smiling in December
So what did Brady Hoke do about this? He fired his friend and Offensive Coordinator--with whom he'd had lots of success. He made wholesale changes to the positions the defensive staff coaches, and removed himself as a position coach. He will be instituting a new scheme on both sides of the ball--completely new on offense, and moving from a 4-3 Under to a 4-3 Over on defense. Make no mistake about it, this change on defense is almost as significant as moving from a 3-4 to a 4-3 (but not as significant as going to a 3-3-5). On top of that, Hoke is reshuffling a slew of starters and key back-ups.
Here's what I love about this:
- It's all on Hoke. If this season ends in disaster, the J. Ira and Blah Blah Blah Coach will be the last place for the finger to point. It's mostly his roster, the coaching staff has been rebuilt, player positions have been changed. The answer to the question, "Can Brady Hoke coach?" is now clearly: "See 2014 season."
- The courage to change. I get Brian's negativity about some of the changes. A new OC? A new scheme on defense? Changing the position of your best player on defense (maybe the best player on the team)? It all smacks of desperation. That's scary as hell, and should make you nervous. It makes me nervous. But last year was awful, and here is a coach saying, "You know what? We have to make significant changes. Tweaks aren't going to do it." He's admitting the failure--not just through coachspeak--and making changes that could turn things around.
- Win or lose, this should be better to watch. Devin Gardner called it "a new style of practice." We know that Nussmeier at least practiced the no huddle at Alabama. Whether or not we see U-M stopping for a group chat between every play this season, I would expect the offense to move more quickly and the QBs to have more time at the line. I can damn near guarantee you'll see some of the constraint plays many on this board have been clamoring for, since Nuss' has always used WR screens and extended hand-offs. And we now know that Devin Funchess will be playing "on the outside." Nussmeier has always used a balanced attack that focuses on getting the ball in the hands of his playmakers and scoring points. Even if our offense doesn't set records this year, it should be a lot more fun to watch.
- Defense, too. The Tampa Two defenses that were en vogue in the NLF in the early '00's (and longer for the Lions) proved that "bend-but-don't-break" defense could work. Forcing the offense to plod towards the end zone and use all their downs increases the chances of a mistake and forces an offense to be more precise. I have two problems with that: 1) It's much harder to do against a no-huddle offense, since you can't rotate your D-Line as much, which MUST get pressure. 2) It's not as fun to watch. Last season, it often seemed like Mattison's "Keep the ball inside and in front" mantra mostly meant, "If you want a first down passing over the middle, we're happy to give it to you." Compounding that frustration was the snake-bitten (or gypsy-cursed) outside coverage that always seemed to be in the right place at the right time but didn't make the play. Even though we produced 17 INTs and nearly as many turnovers as we did in 2011 (when we recovered a ridiculous 20 fumbles) it never felt like a game-changing or play-making defense, mostly because there were far too many times when we let teams like Akron, Penn State, Indiana, 2nd-half Iowa, Ohio State, and Kansas State move the ball seemingly at will. Too many times, when it mattered most, our defense whiffed. Hoke says NO MORE! The changes that have been made public about positions and scheme strongly suggest we are moving to a high-pressure, in your face defense closer to MSU's style than Monte Kiffin's. I expect more blitzing, more play-making, and more TFLs. Might we get torched more often? Maybe, but I'd rather watch that brand of football, and I think players (and recruits) would rather play that way.
- Musical chairs on defense. Moving Keith Heitzman to TE is a virtual no-lose change: here's a guy who had been passed by younger players at SDE, switching to a position he played in high school where we need toughness and depth. But moving your best defender (and maybe player) to MLB from what was closer to a 3-4 OLB? It's a gamble, and not a small one. The upside is huge: if you go right, Jake Ryan is there; if you go left, JMFR is there. Starting from the middle, he has the potential to be involved in every play. But what if he's not very good at his new job? What if JRIII gets put on his ass by opposing TEs? What if Desmond Morgan is too slow to play the WILL in a 4-3 Over? Hoke took his deepest, most experienced position group on the entire team and changed everything. If it works, it could be beautiful. If it doesn't, he could be fired. But Jake Ryan went from 6.8 tackles/game to 3.7 and, even more alarming, from 1.27 TFLs/game to 0.56. Sure, some of that is the injury, but some of that is opposing teams saying, "We're not letting him beat us." Now? Defensive coordinators will have to fool Ryan to beat him, because we already know he can shed blocks and move sideline-to-sideline. If he can diagnose plays, he's going to kick some serious ass in 2014. And now Mattison is his position coach.
Do these changes make me nervous? Of course. These are huge changes, and change always brings risk. But, to me, these changes seem to directly address the issues--both in terms of success and enjoyment--that made 2013 so damn unwatchable. And win or lose, we'll know what we have in a head coach.
What it all boils down to is this: it's Hoke's fourth season, and very much the fourth quarter in a game he's losing to stay on as Michigan's blah blah blah Head Coach. And he's not calling the safe, conservative I-form off tackle play, or even the single-back play-action post; while it may require some help from the heavens, he's calling the fucking Hail Mary.
We'll just have to pray it works.
A lot has been made on the board lately about the struggles of the Michigan defensive line. My question is about disbursement of coaches and how it impacts player development. When Jerry Montgomery left for Oklahoma we hired Roy Manning to coach linebackers and the joke was consistent prior to Montgomery leaving that he was in the Beyonce coaching position. However, with Mattison have DC responsibilities and Hoke having HC responsibilities and no dedicated D-Line coach are those players getting enough individual or position group attention to develop like other positions or am I overthinking the importance of having dedicated position coaches?
My favorite album of all-time...sadly fitting for the 2013 football season
I'm taking a brief break from grading the position groups to
comment vent about the Copper Bowl and the program in general. Brian's post today was alarmingly similar to my feelings (usually he is far more emo than I am) about the game and the program in general.
What Brady Hoke and his supporters (myself included) has always been able to hang his hat on is that his teams play hard. They don't always play well, but they do play hard. Always.
The Copper Bowl was not just a failure to play defense (we allowed 6.56 yds/play and let KSU covert 7 of 11 third downs) or score TDs despite a surprisingly efficient first-half offense (finished the game at 4.92 yds/play...but only had 53 plays), but it was a failure to show-up.
This sums-up our 2013 season
After spending the entire season trying really hard and not getting good results due to a variety of factors (youth, play-calling, missed assignments, etc) the team was in too much pain to try to crack another coconut. Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison's defense--for the first time--simply didn't appear to have the will to put up another fight.
Those who believe the guillotine would be too kind of a punishment for Al Borges after this season might not want to admit it, but the offensive gameplan was pretty effective. Shane Morris has an unbelievable arm and can make throws that no Michigan QB since Drew Henson could even think about, but his decision-making isn't there yet, as evidenced by what happened late when he was asked to read the whole field and make throws into 8-man coverages. Borges understood this and designed a screen game that let shane make throws but avoided forcing him to pick which guy to throw to. We moved the ball and even tried a fade to Funchess in the endzone...but couldn't score a TD. The offense appeared to be giving effort for at least a few drives, but couldn't get it done. Then they gave-up too: we didn't even hurry when we were down 24-6 with 8:06 remaining.
For the first time in Brady Hoke's tenure, the team simply didn't appear to try. This is sad, alarming, and needs to be addressed. Obviously, Greg Mattison did not become a bad coach between the Ohio game and this debacle. And Hoke did not lose his powers of motivation. But what is clear is that if you give your full effort over-and-over and get nothing but pain, at some point, your body might just say, "not today."
I am someone who believes in looking at the whole picture. The 2013 season's failures are not on the shoulders of just one person (or even two or three) in my estimation; rather a confluence of many unfortunate factors fused into a nuclear disaster. And while there are many reasons for the meltdown, there must be some accountability for what happened in that bowl game.
All that said, if we put together a 10-win season in 2014 and win one of the MSU/OSU games (or both) we will be right back in the hunt as a B1G contender, and the positive momentum could push closer to our goal or returning to national prominence. On the other hand, if we slog to an eight-win (or worse) total in 2014, we risk becoming solidified as a second-tier team...until we re-build again.
Make no mistake about it: that bowl game showing has very real consequences. For the first time, a Brady Hoke team didn't even show-up. And that means 2014 just became even more important to the future of this program and the job-security of everyone on the staff.
This might be the worst t-shirt ever
I still remember the first time someone asked to see my ID. I was a junior in college, and walking into a casino. I proudly withdrew my Michigan driver's license and handed it to the bouncer. He looked at me, saw my beaming face, and chuckled. He knew what I didn't: that I would start to hate being asked for ID after it happened approximately twice more; by then I just wanted to get where I was going or buy what I was buying without having to reach into my pocket and pull my ID out of my wallet. Leave me alone, man. I'm old enough.
Of course, these days, I take more pleasure in being carded. It rarely happends, but when it does, I'm pleased to reveal that I have been older than 21 for...a long time.
This diary will examine the experience of our overall roster. I decided I wanted to go beyond the O-Line and look at the whole picture. This concept basically occurred to me when I realized I was no longer completely committed to BRADYHOKE4EVER. I love the guy, and think he can be successful, but our offense is approaching the ineptitude that our defense achieved under RR, and that is indefensible. But I want the facts before I judge.
I'm wading into some dark waters here. Some people are going to see this diary as an effort to indict (again) Rich Rodriguez. Right here it says that's not what I'm doing--in fact, RR is a great coach, and I wish he had succeeded at U-M. Others will see it as an apology for Al Borges; NO. Al Borges deserves no apologies. After Saturday, I am no longer in favor of giving AB another year. Don't get me wrong--I'm not calling for him to be fired, but I'm not against him being put out to pasture. If he's replaced, however, it better be with someone who has a similar philosophy, because, as this diary shows, transitions can SUCK.
Here are the raw numbers for Michigan:
|Yr||# of players||%||Walkons||Scholars||%|
On their own, these numbers seem almost self-evident: RR and The Process left us with a roster that is almost completely useless for Hoke's philosophical brand of football. But how do they compare with other schools, and how do they compare with other schools that have recently undergone a coaching staff transition?
Because I have a life and lots of work to do that I can only justify avoiding for so long, I only studied the data of five other schools (because they were easy to find with the Googles): Wisconsin, Nebraska, Texas A&M, Ohio State, and Florida State. All of these programs have had coaching changes since 2008, and they are all relatively strong programs that compete for conference championships. Here are their breakdowns:
This is just for the scholarship players. While there is some variance across these five programs, there are some stark differences when comparing any of them to the Michigan roster. Only Texas A&M has a higher percentage of first-year players, but their second-year percentage is tiny. Ohio State is the only school to have more than two-fifths of their roster devoted to first and second year players, but at 54%, they are still 6.7 percentage points (12.4%) below Michigan. Here are the averages for the five, including the totals for players in their first two years and players and in their last three years:
|Yrs||Sample Five||2/3 totals|
Not surprisingly, players in their first and second years compose roughly 2/5 of the roster, with players in their third year or later accounting for about 60%. For Michigan, though, these numbers are drastically--and alarmingly--different. Over 60% of our roster is composed of guys who have been with the program for two years or less. Our roster is upside down. Here are the deltas for our roster versus the average:
|Yrs||Delta||% diff||2/3 delta||% diff|
Basically, we have almost 50% more youth and one-third less experience. We will require baby-sitting for another year.
What's even more striking is our dearth of experience on defense: we have just eight scholarship players in their fourth or fifth year in the program. Mattison has turned us into a competent defense despite lacking seasoned veterans, and next year he'll once again have just three fifth-year players.We have, on average, 28.4% more first-year players and 76.5% (!!!) more second-year players. The third year is the least significant difference, where we are about 19% behind the average. In years four and five the difference is vast, but nothing like year two.
Conclusions and Error Sources. We are ridiculously young. Our proportionally gigantic second-year class will be helping to even things out next year, but we'll still be real short on fiftth-year players.
For me, this gives me hope for Hoke. I like Brady; I think he's a genuine, good-hearted man with a teacher's heart. He's a strong recruiter, and he doesn't make the public misstatements that so often tripped-up his predecessor, but he must get this offense turned around or he'll face the same fate. To be honest, I'd rather have a good man as our head coach than a douche who can win games. The trick is finding both, and both you must be if you want to satisfy perhaps the most demanding fanbase in all of college football.
Obviously, youth alone is not enough to tell the story. But it obvious that Hoke inherited a roster that was ill-equipped to handle his demands. I belive that must be a factor when judging his performance.
The obvious error source is the small sample size of the average. That said, Wisconsin has a brand new coach, Ohio and A&M have second-year HCs, and Jimbo started at Florida State in 2010. Only Bo Pelini has more than four years on the job (started in '08). I suspect, if anything, these rosters are more youth-slanted than average, especially when you consider the impact of Ohio State's switch to the spread-no-huddle.
TL;DR - Michigan is extremely inexperienced, and only next year will we have a roster of normal proportions. Greg Mattison has made it work anyway. Hoke has a valid reason for under-performance so far, but starting next year that begins to fade. At this point, even accounting for youth, I can't stand behind Borges anymore.
Running for our lives...against UConn
2013. The season of Manball. The season of Devin Gardner. The thumping of CMU. The return of Ol' 98. The full bucket of KFC after Notre Dame. The...WTF just happened?
Brady Hoke appeared poised to repeat the third-year success of past Michigan coaches with more of his recruits taking the field and the full installation of his offensive philosophy of MANBALL. An easier schedule meant 9 wins was almost a worst-case-scenario. Ohio at home was going to be the most significant edition of "The Game" since 2006.
Is it time to throw all of that away?
Michigan is 4-0 heading into its first bye week, but never has undefeated felt so much like a funeral. CMU went as expected, Notre Dame was pure joy; now there is an anxious certainty that armageddon is just around the corner.
You know it's bad when the gif is from The Shining
But I thought, "Maybe it's not as bad as it looks. Maybe there is some semblance of hope in the numbers that I'm just not able to see now." So I set out to find solace in statistics, in search of some great white buffalo to sooth my soul.
Let's start with Akron. We're talking about a team that has picked-up only 17 recruits ranked above two stars on rivals in the last five years. To put that in perspective, Michigan had 17 players with FOUR stars or better in the 2013 class alone. Saying there is a "talent gap" is like calling the Grand Canyon a pothole.
Maybe a chart will make me feel better:
|Date||Opponent||Surface||Result||Rush Yards||Pass Yards||Plays||Total Yards||Yards/Play|
|08/29/13||@ UCF||Grass||L 7-38||134||116||60||250||4.17|
|09/07/13||James Madison||Turf||W 35-33||69||287||57||356||6.25|
|09/14/13||@ 18 Michigan||Turf||L 24-28||107||311||79||418||5.29|
This is Akron's offensive output through their first four games. UCF held Akron to 168 fewer yards and 1.12 fewer yards/play. How bad is 5.29 yards/play? Last season, only Alabama, Northwestern, Ohio State, and South Carolina averaged more yards/play against us. All of those teams finished the season ranked #17 or higher. UMass averaged 3.92 yards/play; Purdue 3.49; Illinois 2.53. Even Nebraska only posted 5.02, while Air Force managed 4.63.
Not since GERG has a cupcake been able to move the ball so effectively against Michigan, and even the 2008 defense had a better average yards/play than 5.29. So yeah, that's really bad. I'm not feeling any better yet. Maybe another chart?
|Date||Opponent||Surface||Result||Rush Yards||Pass Yards||Plays||Total Yards||Yards/Play|
|08/31/13||Central Mich.||Turf||W 59-9||242||221||68||463||6.81|
|09/07/13||22 Notre Dame||Turf||W 41-30||166||294||72||460||6.39|
|09/21/13||@ Connecticut||Grass||W 24-21||192||97||72||289||4.01|
That's better. Our offense cranked out 6.85 yards/play vs. Akron--even better than we did against CMU. Sure, there were some negative plays and the MANBALL didn't really get going until late, but you can't argue the offense wasn't productive when it piled-up 425 yards on just 62 plays. The real problem was the 62 plays--a number indicative of bad defense and turnovers. If we get to 70 plays--roughly our average in the three other games--we're looking at about 480 yards of offense.
But there was something in that chart that bothered me...
HOLY $#!%!!! We only managed 4.01 yards/play agasint UConn? The only game we did worse than that in 2012 was Nebraska. We put up 4.80 yards/play agasint 'Bama, 5.26 against MSU, and even managed 4.53 against ND. Only MSU and VaTech held us under 4.01 yards/play in 2011 (3.73 and 3.54, respectively) and NO ONE kept us that low in 2010. In 2009, Penn State held us to 3.42. Three teams did in 2008--but those three teams had a combined seven losses. In 2007, Penn State allowed just 3.91, while Ohio didn't let us move: we averaged just 1.49 yards/play.
What do you notice about all those teams? They're good. Most of them were really good. I am not willing to go back further than 2007, but I seriously doubt Michigan has ever had such a poor offensive performance against a cupcake. We averaged 6.22 in The Horror.
I need more chart.
|Date||Opponent||Surface||Result||Rush Yards||Pass Yards||Plays||Total Yards||Yards/Play|
|09/21/13||18 Michigan||Grass||L 21-24||47||159||57||206||3.61|
UConn managed just 3.61 yards/play against us. That's basically what MSU and VaTech did to us in 2011, and it's far better than Towson or Maryland fared against the Huskies. It's even better than the 3.68 yards/play we allowed to CMU. Only Purdue and Illinois were held to lower yards/play in 2012, and only Illinois in 2011. Miami (NTM) and Delaware State were the only teams held under that average in the RR era, and in 2007 we held Minnesota to 3.50 and Notre Dame to...1.44.
In the Akron game, the defense was really, really bad. Against an opponent whose players barely make the Rivals rankings. In the UConn game, the offense was even worse. While UConn's 40 three-star recruits (and one four-star!) in the last five classes make Akron jealous, they're hardly a football powerhouse.
The good news is that only one side of the ball sucked in both games (although special teams certainly haven't helped much). That kept us from a second-coming of The Horror. The bad news is that we are capable of playing at historically bad levels on both sides of the ball. Elite teams don't do that.
Based on the last two weeks, it's hard to look at any of our remaining games and feel totally secure. We're not playing anyone as bad as Akron or UConn the rest of the way. If our offense plays like they just did, Minnesota could beat us. If our defense plays like they did against Akron, Indiana could beat us. I just threw-up in my mouth thinking about that.
If we can get the team to play to its potential on both sides of the ball, we could definitely still get to double-digits in the win column. That's a big "if". For now, I'm revising my 10-2 prediction to 8-4. We could easily lose four-out-of-five in November, or Penn State could trip us in October.
It's frustrating that I am this nervous/anxious for the Minnesota game as a measuring stick.