This one goes to 11 despite my intention to make it a top ten list because I wrote them up piecemeal and at some point after too much effort had been put into each to throw any away I realized I had an extra item. This is obviously fate, so here they are.
These are ranked by gut because you can't put a number on the special sort of misery football can inflict. How to rate high on thie list:
Represent a major missed opportunity. Games from the Year of Infinite Pain do feature prominently but towards the end of the list because reversing any one of them means you went 8-4, which BFD.
Be an easily preventable error. Sometimes bad stuff happens. Sometimes you do it to yourself.
Be the obvious start of something terrible; some individual plays on the list were moments when it became clear a large number of plays later were going to be very bad.
And now on with the hairshirts!
11. Unblocking That Field Goal
Dusty Magnum lines up for a 38 yard field goal on the last play of the 2005 Rose Bowl. Michigan charges hell-bent after the kick and gets two players in position to block the thing, but the ball manages to split Ernest Shazor's arms, taking a deflection off his elbow. The slightly redirected ball squeezes through Prescott Burgess's hands and through the uprights. Michigan loses 38-37.
A lot of these moments to come are going to be events that cost Michigan some opportunity in the future. This one was simple: if Shazor's dive takes him an inch to the left or right, Michigan wins one of the classic Rose Bowls of all time and I don't spend a couple hours making "The Five Stages of Vince Young" in a South Park character generator.
Despite that, the play is mostly notable for how close Michigan came to doing something that is hard to do, does not involve a Michigan player or coach making a terrible decision*, and did come at the end of a classic someone had to lose. I don't know… it just doesn't rate compared to the rest of the stuff enclosed herein. Losing a close Rose Bowl is hardly the worst thing that's happened to Michigan in the last ten years.
*(Michigan did not attempt to save itself any time in case the field goal was good but Mangum was somewhat shaky and Vince Young was unstoppable the whole night; if Texas was willing to take a 38-yarder I would have been happy enough to let them if I was coaching.)
10. The Worst Blitz Ever
Late in the 2005 Minnesota game, Jim Herrmann lines up LB Prescott Burgess as a DE opposite the Gopher right tackle. With face-crushing tight end Matt Spaeth also to that side of the field, a 230 pound linebacker who's never played DE is one-on-two versus the best run-blocking line in the conference. Herrmann's playcall is a blitz from the other side of the field that sucks the safety on Burgess's side back into a centerfield position, and a simple off-tackle run goes for 60 yards, allowing Minnesota to kick a game-winning field goal.
Unquestionably the dumbest single playcall any Michigan coach made during the last decade. Michigan was tied with Minnesota 20-20 when Lamarr Woodley decapitated Gopher quarterback Brian Cupito. Minnesota ran a couple times with the backup quarterback, punted, and got the ball back after Michigan's drive stalled out. Stuck around their own 20 with around three minutes on the clock, Minnesota runs twice more, petrified of letting backup and redshirt freshman Tony Mortenson do anything other than hand off.
Mortenson's career numbers: 14 of 39 for 179 yards, 1 TD, 3 INTs. At the time his most extensive run had come in an 0 of 4 performance against Florida Atlantic. Since Cupito has gone out Minnesota has run six straight times. It's third and ten. Minnesota is clearly playing for overtime and will just run it off tackle and punt. An injury to Willis Barringer has forced true freshman Brandon Harrison into the free safety spot, where he pairs with true freshman Jamar Adams.
Jim Herrmann decides to put Burgess in as a down lineman in a nickel package, lines him up on the strong side of the formation, and blitzes away from Burgess. The rest is Gopher history:
Burgess ended up ten yards downfield and still couldn't get off his block, but that was not exactly his fault.
In the long run this did not matter since Michigan stumbled to 7-5 in and though they could have easily won three more games, this one included, they could easily have lost three more. Herrmann would be shipped off to the NFL after the season, clearing the way for Ron English to give everyone the wrong idea for ten games. Speaking of Jim Herrmann's failings during 2005…
9. Carr punts from the Ohio State 34
Leading 21-19 in the dying minutes of the 2005 Game, Michigan has a first down on the Ohio State side of the field. Two runs to bleed OSU's timeouts get nowhere. They're followed by a six-yard WR screen that uses the last OSU timeout. On fourth and four from the OSU 34, Carr brings out his kicker to do the fake-kick-actually-punt thing, which goes out of bounds at the OSU 12.
Of all the awful math-spurning things I ever saw Lloyd Carr do this was the worst. Ways in which it was a terrible idea:
The clock was hovering around three minutes and OSU had no timeouts. If you get the first down the game is essentially over. If you give the ball back OSU is not under any serious time pressure. Indeed, they scored and Michigan had 20 or so seconds to respond.
Michigan's defense had crumbled on three separate score-or-die drives earlier in the year, four if you count the one Michigan had ceded to OSU just moments ago. On each they had played soft, ensuring that when the opponent scored Michigan would have no opportunity to respond.
OSU was down two points and only needed a field goal.
The fake field goal punt was so obviously coming that OSU put a returner back. If the punt had been slightly better that guy was off to the races.
You spurned the opportunity to get a first down on third down for a more makeable fourth down so you could take away OSU's meaningless final time out.
Instead of taking a solid shot at ending the game, Carr chose 22 yards of field position that Michigan gave back in three plays by playing soft. I shorted out in the aftermath. Under pressure Carr reverted to the sort of call that hadn't been right since 1979 and it cost Michigan its best shot to put a dent in this agonizing OSU winning streak.
8. Pitch it to Breaston!
Michigan's attempt to replicate The Play is 15 yards from working when Tyler Ecker runs directly into a Nebraska defender on the sideline instead of pitching the ball to Steve Breaston, a man with a plan in the open field. Panama.
We end our Year of Infinite Pain trifecta with this:
I actually ended up at a tailgate that Tyler Ecker was at once, and all I could think was "why didn't you pitch it?"
7. Rugby punt fiasco dénouement
Michigan was really, really good in 2003. John Navarre had molted from an inept flamingo into a laser-chucking flamingo. Chris Perry made one of those senior-year explosions you always hope will happen but almost never does. Braylon Edwards announced his presence. The defense featured Marlin Jackson, Ernest Shazor before he went up in smoke, Pierre Woods before he went up in smoke, and Lawrence Reid before his back imploded. (Unsurprisingly, the yardage defense would sag from 11th to 33rd the following year.) They were good.
But it all blew up on special teams. A grad assistant named Jim Boccher was placed in charge of it; by the end of the year he'd be in real estate and (probably) therapy. Things first went poorly against Oregon. Oregon blocked an Adam Finley punt for a touchdown. A fake punt attempt ended in a fumble. Oregon returned a punt for a touchdown. Despite getting a special teams touchdown of its own on a blocked chip-shot field goal, Michigan gave away ten points on special teams in a four-point loss.
That could have been random fortune, but what happened against Iowa was not. Boccher was an eager beaver who was actually ahead of the rugby punt curve that has spread through college football; stodgy Michigan was one of the first teams to try this high school thing out. The announcers openly wondered what the heck was going on. The intervening years have proven that it's a good idea if you can do it right.
Michigan could not, and was immediately reminded of why it liked being stodgy. Iowa almost blocked a punt, then almost blocked another one, then deflected a third; Michigan was fortunate that the deflection was partial. Along the way Michigan had given up a 43-yard punt return to Ramon Ochoa that set up a nine-yard Hawkeye touchdown drive. When Rivas wandered out with five minutes left in the third quarter, the whole stadium could feel it coming, and it did: Iowa finally returned one to sender, setting up a one-yard field goal drive. Michigan lost by three despite outgaining Iowa 463-295.
Boccher sought other opportunities before Michigan fans had the opportunity to seek him; the 2003 team would go undefeated outside of games in which their special teams cost them at least ten points until meeting USC in the Rose Bowl. That was the year in which USC got booted from the title game despite being #1 in both polls; if Michigan's special teams hadn't imploded so spectacularly an undefeated Michigan would have featured in the national title game against an Oklahoma team that had just blown the Big 12 title against Kansas State; Kansas State got blown out by an OSU team that Michigan had just handled. Competency on special teams could have resulted in a national title.
While I feel for you... This year was my senior year. At least I grew up in Chicago so I have the Hawks, but this year was worse for Michigan sports. There was the memorable hockey run, but we know how that ended against Miami.
He simply had no business being put in that position. I think LC was a damn good coach, but his most damaging failing was in his selection of assistants. The very best coaches spawn good head coaches in turn, but Brady Hoke is the only even mildly-successful ex-assistant after Lloyd's 13 years, and that's not a good record. Debord, English, and Parrish have a collective won-lost record so far that's just horrifying.
The contrast with Bo is startling. Starting with his first season in 1969 and going through his 13th season in 1981, this is the list of his assistants who went on to head coaching positions of their own. Not all were huge successes, but there are some notable names here:
Frank Maloney, Chuck Stobart, Larry Smith, Jim Young, Gary Moeller, Jack Harbaugh, Eliott Uzelac, Bill McCartney, Tom Reed, Paul Schudel, Don Nehlen, Les Miles, Lloyd Carr, and Ron Vanderlinden.
McCartney, Nehlen, Carr, and Miles all got teams to NC games, and all but Nehlen won the NC.
Occasional excess is necessary to remedy the deadening effects of moderation.
Lloyd's greatest failing was his selection of assistant coaches. Lloyd was very loyal, to a fault, and the program slowly degraded. While this group of assistants were unsuccessful (by Michigan standards) on the field - they were successful in recruiting, until the last few years; as well as having a very strong presence in the community.
I had almost forgotten some of those calls. RR has and will make his share of mistakes, but so far I can't think of many coaching decisions that cost us as much as during the Carr era. Yeah, I know, the sample size is much larger for coaching mistakes from the Carr era at this point, but putting a grad assistant in charge of special teams...?
He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and his shipmates called him mad.
Ecker, if given an accurate Madden awareness rating, would hold a zero. Outside of that Alamo Bowl fail, I constantly remember his inability to recognize down, yardage, or time remaining when catching the ball. He's an idiot.
"Nowhere is there a better university, in any way, than this Michigan of ours."
While all of these killed me at the time, the only one that still really makes me mad is the OSU punt. How differently is that year perceived, and what happens afterwards if Avant catches a 5 yard pass on 4th and 4?
It's a small distance from the upvote arrow to the downvote arrow.
Does it? Years from now, I'll remember sitting in my family room, watching the game. Savoy makes the huge catch to set up the 1st and Goal. After all the times I'd had my intestines ripped out through my nose watching my favorite team, this win was for the ages.
Has anyone else tried this Twitter thing? @CallMeNjia
I wonder if MCalibur or the Mathlete could devise an objective way of measuring whether some teams are more susceptible to heartbreak than others? Wolverine fans probably feel that they've endured more of these “fish that got away” games than the average program, whereas Notre Dame has an unusual knack for winning lucky.
But is that true? Honestly, I don’t know how to answer that, but it would be interesting to have an objective measure, if someone could come up with a fact-based way of teasing out unusually lucky (or unlucky) game-changing plays from the stat sheet.
For as much as you might think Michigan has let games slip away, you only have to look at one of the teams in this list (Minnesota) for even more "fish that got away" games.
Two of them against Michigan, I might add. But when you add up the Gophers' heartbreaking losses in the aughts, it dwarfs Michigan's.
2001 and 2008 Northwestern.
2003 and 2004 Michigan. Heck, even 2008.
2007 Bowling Green
Even though 2008 Iowa was 55-0 it was devastating to the fanbase.
2004, 2008 and 2009 Wisconsin.
And let's not forget the 2006 Insight Bowl, where the Geauxfurs were leading by 38-3, proceeded to lose to Texas Tech, AND THEN FIRED GLEN MASON AND HIRED TIM BREWSTER WHEN CHARLIE STRONG WAS AVAILABLE. HOW UNLUCKY CAN YOU GET AS A FANBASE?
And really, if you want to see this kind of information, get on the Internet and get to work. Or, send a check Mathlete's way. Furthermore, isn't it a tad subjective?
I think you can get a good quick and dirty first approximation by looking at a team's record in games decided by 8 points or less. I looked this up for a bunch of (mostly successful) teams a few years and almost every team was in the 50-60% range. The one exception was OSU and their profusion of close, low-scoring wins.
Michigan in the 00s:
00: 3-3. We curse the UCLA, Purdue, and especially Northwestern losses until the cows come home, and seem to forget the narrow wins over Illinois, Wisconsin, and Auburn.
01: 2-3. We beat Wisconsin with special teams--the offense did nothing all afternoon!
02: 6-2. Slightly misleading, as we were in less trouble against Utah and Purdue than the scores indicated. Penn State still moans about that game.
03: 2-2. The MSU game wasn't as close as the score indicated. We were up 27-13 and Perry was battering the MSU defense to a pulp when we got cute and ran a waggle, resulting in a fumble that Sparty took the other way.
05: 3-5. The last play of the PSU game would probably be #1 on their list for the decade. We also gutted out narrow road wins over MSU and Wisconsin.
06: 2-1. If I remember correctly Ball State actually got down near the red zone at the end.
07: 3-1. PSU, MSU, and Florida were all saying coulda shoulda woulda after those games.
08: 1-4. These losses were less bothersome, because the stakes were so much lower.
So the overall record was 24-19 under Carr (21-19 without the misleading games), 3-7 under Rodriguez (losing teams generally lose somewhat more close games than they win).
Since you mentioned Notre Dame, their record in close games was 29-22, comparable to ours under Carr. Tennessee (a program we get compared to a lot) was 31-18, much better than we were.
I want to turn my head and not look, but I can't help but relive these over and over.
I was also always amazed that no one ever seemed to mention how close the Texas FG was to being blocked. When I watched it I remember seeing it tipped and hoping it was enough, and after words saying what if a couple inches. I never knew that it was tipped the first time, only to pass through the main blockers hands, meaning it was even closer than what I thought it was.
"Be excellent to each other and...party on dudes!." -Abraham Lincoln
The '99 team was also pretty good and I insist to this day that we win the national title if there's a playoff that year. Michigan and Alabama were playing the best football in the country by the end of the season.
It would have been a little outside the box to do it, but I wish we'd have let OSU score the go-ahead TD when they got a first-and-goal with about 50 seconds left. Instead, we stopped them on first down, watched them run the clock down, and then gave up the go-ahead score. I won't call it a huge coaching blunder, but letting them score right away probably would have given us our best shot at that point. OSU had (as usual) a great placekicker and holding them to a last-second de facto PAT wasn't a great alternative.