rundown of Michigan's riser
So yeah, this has actually been in the works for a couple of weeks, but being the superstitious person that I apparently am when it comes to sports, I held off posting while UM kept plowing through the best teams in the country. As a result, I’ve had to completely junk sections (e.g. talking about Burke’s chances at national POY honors, lack of compelling storylines) while fleshing out others (e.g. horrible refereeing, announcers with agendas, 3-point shooting as a sustainable offensive strategy) with more information. And maybe the wounds are still too raw and fresh, but this post will be my little catharsis after going through the emotional wringer.
Best: Thank you!
This post may get a little melancholy, so up front I want to say “Thank you” to the team, the coaches, to everyone for a great season. When I caught UM in NYC just before Thanksgiving, I hadn’t seen them play in person in over a decade. But not 5 minutes into that game, I couldn’t get over how much fun it was to watch them. They played the game “the right way”, but not in the cliche way old men use it to refer to a figment of their faded memories, but in the way good basketball should be. It has been an amazing run all year, and will be a tale I tell my kids years from now when they are staring at their iPad 7s at dinner and ignoring me.
This team was fun to watch, and as a fan that is the best complement you can give a team.
Not to go all SEC and make everything about football, but does everyone remember how depressing the 2008 Michigan football season was? The team went 3-9 and wasn’t even that good, and the bowl streak ended, the team was trounced by mid-level MAC teams and freaking Illinois, and everyone was bummed? And this stink, this cloud of despair, didn’t really start to leave until Brady Hoke showed up and the team beat OSU and won the Sugar Bowl?
Well, the conventional wisdom during 2008 was that most Michigan fans had never experienced such a profound sense of national irrelevance, let alone the tangible results of a losing season, in their lifetimes, that they didn’t know how to handle it. They had expectations, and those finally did not mesh with reality. As a result, they lacked the copping mechanisms other fanbases built up over time, of seeing your best efforts end in missed bowl games and losing streaks to rivals. You get used to the teases, the down years, the unknown trials and tribulations that put pencils in your hands during preseason prognosticating when you really want pens. You can’t assume anything, which maybe makes the lows more ominous but also makes the highs that much sweeter.
People will say that UM basketball entered this circle of Hell when Steve Fisher walked out those doors, bodies sticking out from beneath the various rugs and buses strewn about Crisler. But that always felt like an easy-to-locate marker than an actual timestamp, the “official” end of an era for narrative purposes. To me, the beginning of this sports purgatory was that 1993 National Championship game. Until that point, Michigan had seemingly been on a perpetual rise. The title in 1989 felt slightly unexpected at the time but, in hindsight, kind of made sense given the talent on the team. They followed that win up with another solid season, one admittedly down year in 1991, and then the rise of the Fab Five. For a solid 5-year stretch, everything was coming up Michigan.
But then UM lost to North Carolina, and the magic was gone like that. In hindsight, it would have been gone regardless of the outcome, because expectations had been ratcheted up to unsustainable levels as soon as Chris, Jalen, Juwan, Jimmy, and Ray pulled up their black socks. 1989 was the title, but 1993 gave people the license to expect a title, and this pivot is what turns fans from 1980 US Hockey fans to 1980 USSR Hockey fans.
Duke fans feel like this, same with UNC, Kansas, IU and MSU. You want to just love your team for what it is now, but you can’t completely ignore what they were and what they should be. And that taints your view a bit; you are relieved when they squeak by a 5 seed in the second round of the NCAA tournament because it means another trip to the Sweet 16, and it leaves the possibility open for a run to the Elite 8 and to the Final Four. You feel a release not of happiness but of pressure, vicariously living through wins and loses the way you always say you won’t but inevitably ends with you screaming at the television in front of mixed company.
I guess my point is that regardless of how Monday turned out, UM basketball has returned to national relevance, and that is amazing for fans like me who tried to talk himself in Maceo Baston and Louis Bullock as saviors of the Maize and Blue cagers. John Beilein has proven to be a dynamic offensive mind and a very shrewd recruiter, who can meld teams into his image and overcome many of the deficiencies found in the college game. Even with the expected turnover, people will expect UM basketball to be back in the conference and national title hunts most years, like a national power should be. At the same time, though, the feelings of these past 4 weeks will probably never be there again, or if they are they’ll be tinged with a dread you can’t quite shake. The cloud over UM basketball has finally lifted; it may just be replaced with a far less oppressive one.
Worst: You can take the referees out of the Big 10, but you can’t take the Big 10 out of the referees
Now, I could complain about the officiating in that title game as much as anyone, but it was emblematic of a trend in college basketball that has been going on for years. Whether it be due to the byzantine and obtuse rulebook and its inconsistent enforcement, the speed and development of the players, or simply a drop in overall quality, the officiating of major college basketball has been immensely underwhelming. Offensive players are either treated as Faberge Eggs with the ball (and any impediment of their travel to the hoop treated as a class-2 misdemeanor), or running backs in the worst Oklahoma drill in the world. Defensive players seemingly have no idea what qualifies as a foul or not, so they just throw their bodies around and get handsie like they’re at the Gold Club until they hear a whistle. Blatant calls are missed while game-clock differences of .2s result in 20-minute private screenings of computer monitors.
Since players started to go directly to the NBA with little or no time spent in college, people have offered this up as evidence as to why the college game has suffered both aesthetically as well as in results. And while it is true that the overall talent of squads has been diminished, the quality of the games has been affected at least as much by the degradation of the officiating. Or maybe that’s not the right term; the enforcement of rules has become so murky that referees seemingly are making them up as they go along, creating the disjointed and error-riddled product we’ve seen for over a decade.*
And while I love complain about it as much as the next guy, I don’t think refs “pick” a team or storyline and skew the game in that direction. They don’t get paid by the outcome, and despite Tim Donaghy’s claims, I don’t think most horrible calls are part of some insidious plan to defraud the betting public. But this whole season has been a parade of poor officiating in every conference, highlighted by a B1G season in which mauling a player or punching him in the Hoosiers barely registers. UM benefitted from these calls at times, especially during the tourney, but the fact that even the CBS announcers were calling out the poor calls during the game is an indictment of the “professionals” who are supposed to be keeping the game clean for the kids playing it.
*And I’ll add that it’s not like the NBA game is some bastion of beautiful play either. People point at Heat-Thunder and act like the rest of the season plays out like that. As someone who watches Pistons-Bobcats and Timberwolves-New Orleans, lots of games are downright unbearable.
Best: Player of the year != Dickie V's/NBA Draft Express's Ranking
This was one of those sections that was in an earlier draft, before Trey Burke pulled a Triple H and took every relevant POY award for himself. But whatever, it is still relevant. I know I sound like a cranky old man and/or Skip Bayless, but it feels like the POY award criteria has devolved the past 15-20 years from "who is the best player in the country based on a spectrum of elements, including team success, boxscore stats, and quality of competition" to a big switch statement:
case "ESPN likes him";
case "Plays for Duke":
case "White guy with funny hair and/or 'tries hard'":
case "NBA teams will draft him high":
case "Plays for 'big-name' team:
case "Guy who plays basketball well":
I'm not saying this is a full-proof algorithm, but there is a trend, if you will.
But what makes his sweep so great is that he backed it up on the court in different ways, like a true player of the year should. Outside of the second halves against Kansas and Louisville, Burke could never find his rhythm shooting, so he turned on the ball-hawking defense and facilitated McGary and the shooters. He made his team better, and when they needed him to start scoring he usually did. Even in defeat, he scored 24 points in basically a half of basketball, and probably would have had more had two horrible foul calls (Hancock’s three and his block on Siva) not been made. And he did it without the top-notch supporting cast that you sometimes see at places like UNC, Duke, and Kentucky, where multiple lottery picks are peaking at the same time. Simply stated – he put his team in a position to win every game, and it was refreshing to see a POY do that in big games.
Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I’m expecting McGary, GRIII, and Stauskas to return next year. Burke will be leaving and I expect Hardaway to be gone as well, but overall this team should have some talented players returning to supplement the Irvin and Walton joining the fold next year. It will be interesting to see how the young frontcourt players respond to an offense without a POY feeding them the ball at the best places possible, but I also have faith that they will make the necessary improvements to be leader-types next season. In particular, the rebounding ceiling of this team should rise dramatically, if for no other reason than a year in the weight room (not sure if they’ll have time to be in the community) will bulk up McGary and Robinson to the point they can bang with other post presences in the conference. And while I’m not expecting Spike to replace Burke’s production or leadership, he has proven himself to be a steady enough hand (and Beilein a great molder of PGs) to be a suitable replacement next year. The team will look quite a bit different, but a dramatic fall doesn’t seem likely.
Worst: Draft Speculation
Ugh. Every year, as soon as the confetti has been swept off the court in whatever gawd-awful football stadium the NCAA selected to screw up their championship environment, the attention turns to which players will/should be declaring for the NBA draft. Until recently, of course, UM never had to worry about it. Sure, Jamal Crawford declared early and that stunk, but the NCAA seemed hell-bent on making sure he’d never play a college game again, so that wasn’t a surprise. Manny Harris and Darius Morris were slight surprises but nothing shocking, especially given the clear ceilings in their games.
But the talk surrounding GRIII and McGary seems different, in that it epitomizes the “upside-idation” of pro basketball right now. It’s no longer enough to just be a competent player who needs to improve and mature; now everyone looks at a kid and guesses how he’ll look in 2-3 years, with more muscle, better shooting and different coaching, and then tries to figure out if he’s worth a draft pick. I think both of these players will get drafted in the NBA when they finally leave, but I’ve seen nothing this season to make me believe they can be even a fringe-rotation player on a decent NBA team next season. That doesn’t seem like a smart investment for either kid to leave UM, but I’m sure the next couple of weeks will be filled with dread.
Best: Likeable Players
This is probably more a blurb than a real thought, but it was refreshing to watch a Final Four in which none of the teams featured an outwardly-villainous player. That means, no Marshall Henderson’s, no Derrick Nix’s, not even an Evan Turner-type who doesn’t do anything outwardly horrible but just seems like a jerk on the court. Maybe Triche at Syracuse, but I don’t remember people hating on him like other players in years past. I certainly wasn’t crazy about Luke Hancock as a player against UM, but him being good at basketball (and being bailed out by questionable officiating) aren’t really character flaws to the degree that old Shark Boy from Ole Miss is.
Worst: Injured Players != Special Powers
I’m sure this will be unpopular to some, but the Kevin Ware situation drove me crazy not because of the way the Louisville players responded to it, but how everyone else with a buck in the game tried to exploit it for their own gain. Shirts were made so that Adidas could make a couple more bucks, blogs flooded their site with GIFs and videos to drive traffic while joining in the faux-outrage circle jerk, proponents of paying college players held it up as a shining example of why players need to be financially compensated, and the WWL/media amplified coverage to 11 in order to push the narrative that a kid’s horrific injury meant something more than horrible luck. In short, it was what you’d expect from modern sports culture.
But the real travesty is that Ware’s injury had very little to do with, you know, basketball. He was a good player for the Cards, but they obviously were able to weather his loss on the court reasonably well. Those kids were obviously hurt and pained by watching one of their friends and teammates suffer a horrible injury, but the narrative pushed that they were going to play “hard for Kevin” completely dismisses the reality that these kids were in the Elite 8 and playing for a f’ing national title already. Their next loss would likely be the end of many of their college careers. They had enough motivation.
Yet, to listen to pundits you’d think Louisville needed to sacrifice Ware’s tibia and fibula to the Basketball Gods in order to overcome Duke, WSU, and UM. To cheapen what happened into some motivational plot device devalues the real pain and suffering that occurred. Louisville won and lost because of how they played on the court, and while I’m sure they were happy that Kevin Ware was able to watch them win the national title, I find it hard to believe that their motivation to win a title was supplemented in a meaningful way by his injury.
Worst: Looking for answers
After a loss, people always look for explanations, some fact or trend that explains how one team emerged victorious while another left in defeat. And in some games, perhaps there is a clear example – poor shooting, rebounding, defense, etc. Maybe the other team his 50% of its threes, or forced 25 TOs. But over time, you start to see that perhaps teams lose and win because, in a one-game playoff, anything can happen. UM was a mediocre rebounding unit all year, and that continued into the postseason (35.1 TREB in the regular season, 36 TREB in the tourney). They shot about 71% on FTs in the regular season, and not much worse in the tourney. The defense gambled with outside shooting all year and it usually worked out, except when it didn’t and they were blitzed by teams like IU and MSU. Nothing much changed this postseason except for the fact that UM cruised past VCU and Florida in ways that people didn’t expect. They squeezed out a win against a Kansas team that seemingly every year underperforms a bit. Syracuse was a nail-biter to the end, and Louisville could have turned on a couple of plays. UM’s profile didn’t change that much, except that when they went on those 3-pointer binges the other team usually failed to respond.
My point is that UM lost because someone had to, just like SDSU, VCU, Kansas, Florida, and Syracuse. Yes, talent tends to win out over time and that’s why regular seasons matter in terms of seeding, but the best and worst thing about the tourney is that every game feels like its own little SimCity, and sometimes the power reactor is going great, the streets are clean, and the taxes are high, and other times, well…
Best: Next Year
As much as I complained about the dangers of expectations, it is also fun to realize that for the first time in, I don’t know, decades, UM football and basketball seem to be both on the rise. I’m sure when one of these teams flames out early in the tourney I’ll feel differently, but it’s currently April 9th and everyone is still talking about UM basketball and not pining for the spring game so that we can all speculate on who’s going to be the starting right tackle. That’s pretty awesome.
Note: I usually try to incorporate the other Diaries in this post, but I’m kind of on a tight time crunch and just want to get this out. As always, please read the rest of the Diaries for thoughtful analysis, unique viewpoints, and photoshopped goodness. Me thinks there might be some good stuff after this game.
So, yeah. This is going to be shorter than past editions because, whatever man…
Best: “The Ohio State fans are a special people. Once a Buckeye, always a Buckeye”
That quote, uttered by noted Ohio State booster…er objective ESPN color commentator Chris Spielman, perfectly encapsulates how surreal today was for a non-Buckeye. During today’s game, Jim Tressel, noted disciplinarian and legal scholar, was honored along with the rest of his 2002 National Championship team. This, of course, was the team that featured a mercurial but talented freshman RB Maurice Clarett, who led the Buckeyes in rushing that season and also scored the title-winning TD in overtime against Miami. The whole gang was back, to give the OSU faithful one more opportunity to cheer on a myth, a delusion about its history that seems painfully obvious to everyone not wearing crimson and grey.
So between the first and second quarters of the final game the 2012 Buckeyes will play, a premature finale caused by Mr. Tressel’s behavior during his years in Columbus, the fans in attendance gave him a standing ovation, one of the biggest cheers of the day. All the while, the athletics department and the greater school, with nary a hint of irony, trumpeted his return as a conquering hero of sorts. The narrative went, at least in some circles, that most schools would have done the same, that fans love to cheer on winners and that most of those players were completely above board and played fairly, won every game that season, and, let’s be honest, Miami was no saint either. The thinking went that this was a team that the school should be proud of, or at least should be able to recognize publicly.
Now, I’m trying my best to stay off the soapbox, so I’ll keep this brief. Not all schools would be so quick to celebrate past athletic accomplishments tainted by violations. The next Steve Fisher Appreciation Night at Crisler will be the first, and Brian has been very clear about his feelings toward Louis “seriously, he can die in a fire for all I care” Bullock and the rest of that brood.
But more than some relativistic moral high ground that some UM fans want to take with OSU, the fact remains that the Buckeye fanbase IS special. It drove one of its more prominent alums out of the state, put a bounty out on high school kid who dared to change his commitment, and it has trouble with its emotions. It is a fan base seemingly always on the wrong side of razor’s edge that is fandom, crystallized in a ceremony memorializing the man who gave them one tainted undefeated season while sullying the next one as well. O-H-I-O, indeed.
Best: MGoMeltdowns are awesome
So as is the custom around these parts, the traffic to the site after a loss follows the same trajectory as general internet traffic does whenever illicit pictures of some starlet are “leaked” to the the web totally-unexpectedly-but-right-before-my-new-movie-Crushed Blue Velvet Girlfriend 2-is-released. For a graphical representation, here is a screenshot of the site about 4 minutes after the game ended
Click for full size
It will never approach RCMB or anything in the SEC not related to Vandy, but TWO redundant posts sarcastically “thanking” the coaches for losing the game, one out-and-out “Fire Borges” thread and one claiming he merely “sucked”, one thread already set for deletion, and about 1,100 posts in a game thread, 50% of them berating Al Borges and the team for a poor second half, is nothing to sneeze at. Subsequent posts included petitions to fire Al Borges, a couple crying out for sanity, and one inferring a discussion about iCarly and Larry Hagman that felt appropriate for an 8th-grader’s “MySpace” profile. Then Ace showed up with his usual quality summary and solid reasoning, which is like, Booo this man!
So why is this a “Best”? Because this outpouring feels organic and based on real concerns. During the RR era, people used to freak out after wins OR losses, calling for guys’ heads and questioning everyone’s credentials from the water boy on up. It was an anger born from desperation and confusion, watching a once-proud program flail about on the field for 3 hours every Saturday. But with this team, the complaints are natural, as people know what Michigan is and what they aren’t, and the reasons behind those limitations are real. It’s sobering to see the cracks in this team both today and going forward, but at least they aren’t obfuscated by a general malaise.
Worst: The Blame Game
Since time immemorial fans have complained about offensive coordinators at UM; in my lifetime, I don’t remember a single OC who left the program without being singed pretty badly on the way out. DC’s tend to get off cleaner, at least in part because defensive playcalling feels “harder” to dissect than offensive sets. It probably is a combination of the reactive nature of defense versus the active nature of offense, fans being trained to focus more on the ball than anything else on the field, and the reality that, with few exceptions, offensive players are more prominent, their successes and failures more memorable than their defensive counterparts. And as the puppet master, the general leading that side onto the field, the offensive coordinator naturally takes on a prominent, public-facing role that invites criticism.
Al Borges called a good first half of football against OSU and between a predictable (best case) and atrocious (worst case) second half. Of course, he probably doesn’t deserve as much credit as he’ll get for the first half nor as much blame for the cratering in the second half. Denard’s end-of-quarter 67-yard TD run was all about a playmaker taking advantage of poor tackling technique by OSU and making a play with the ball. In the second half, he wasn’t the reason Devin fumbled the ball deep in UM’s territory, nor the line’s continued inability to get any type of push up the middle.
So yes, the offense failed to do much in the second half against an aggressive but beatable defense. And while it did reasonably well in terms of points in the first half, two of those TDs were on plays that benefitted as much from OSU mistakes as UM’s offensive playcalling. I already discussed Denard’s run benefitting from the GERG-approved “bump the runner, but hard” tackling technique. The muffed punt by Brown gave UM great field positioning, and they cashed in after OSU again bailed them out with a roughing the passer penalty on 3rd down. The pass to Roundtree was a decent playcall but morphed from first-down yardage to TD because of a stiff-arm and some blown coverage. At no point today did the offense feel particularly well-tuned, and toward the end the playcalling devolved to a single index card with “throw the ball” scribbled on it with blue crayon.
For better or for worse, this game was a microcosm of what Al Borges brings to UM. As I have said for months, echoing others both here and in the greater blogosphere, he is not the type of OC who is willing/capable of drastically altering his gameplan within a game, and only sparingly between games. It was clear after the first game of the year that he has an offense in mind with the players he has, and outside of massive injuries to key players that won’t change.
He’s Teddy KGB, and his tell was nakedly obvious to everyone who watched this game, and really, the past two seasons. He’ll win his fair share of hands because the cards dealt to him dictate so, but he’s had two seasons to show the UM faithful that he is better than statistics and flops and hasn’t come close to proving otherwise.
One of the chief complaints people had during the Rich Rodriguez era was the blind loyalty he showed to certain members of his staff, often at odds with their performance on the field. The name “Tony Gibson” remains a bad word on certain message boards, and at various times Bruce Tall and Jay Hopson came under fire for their ineffective coaching. Yet despite fielding horrific defenses and offensive units that were “unpredictable” at best for long stretches of his tenure, RR kept these coaches around because they had come up with him and thus deserved his loyalty, like a successful athlete who finances a cadre of family and friends because he had history with them. And that, as much as the recruiting misses, the weak performances in big games, the caustic media environment, and the losing, was the reason he failed at UM.
So when Brady Hoke arrived at UM, after all of the memorable quotes and wins, one message you kept hearing was his loyalty. He loved this program, he loved this school, and he respected the coaches that worked with him. The 11 wins masked some of the issues that became more prominent this year, previously hidden behind unsustainable fumble recovery rates and last-second heroics. The offense has struggled mightily all year, with the line unable to consistently open lanes for running backs, who then seem unable to produce any additional yards beyond those made available by play design and blocking. The passing game has proven more proficient as the season progressed, but that seems to have been due as much due to poor defenses as any growth brought on by better play-calling and maturation. Punt returns remain an issue for special teams, as does blocking on kick-offs, but that may be as easy as adopting a couple different formations and getting someone back there who won’t let the ball bounce 20 yards after it touches the ground.
The defense has been statistically spectacular and functionally solid. Mattison has been able to generate solid play at all three levels despite a dearth of experience and/or talent at those positions, but the secondary remains questionable outside of Kovacs and the line could not hold up as the game progressed, being gashed consistently by Hyde in the 4th quarter. But those feel like correctable issues with recruiting, and the advancements already made for a unit that 2 years ago was one of the worst in the nation provide hope.
I am not advocating wholesale changes of the staff, but it will be a test of Brady Hoke’s loyalty to see what happens after the bowl game. RR seemingly picked loyalty to his coaches over winning*, and it cost him. We’ll see if Hoke believes that these men can fix the problems before them and move on, or if his loyalty to UM leads him to shake up the staff.
*I know this is reductive to an extent, but I honestly believe changes to the staff could have saved him in his second and third years.
Worst: The Wall
This game was like the meanest 13-year-olds you’ll ever meet, because it rudely highlighted the season-long inability of this squad to run the ball with anyone not named Denard. Lewan struggled for swaths of the game, highlighted by Adolphus Washington strip-sacking Gardner on UM’s opening drive. Thomas Rawls had 3 yards on 5 carries, highlighted by 1 and 2-yard runs on first down. On twelve rushes in the second half, UM totaled 23 yards for 1.9 yds/c, and that includes a fumble and two instances where UM got 0 yards on short third- and fourth-down runs. Beyond this game, Fitz had rushing averages of 1.1 (Purdue), 3.4 (Illinois), and 0.9 (Air Force), and failed to break 100 yards all season before his injury, a year after recording 5. With Lewan likely leaving, talented but young recruits on the line probably not quite ready to start, and Denard and his 3 1,000 yard seasons graduating, it remains a mystery how this team will move the ball on the ground at all next year.
It’s been said already, but Denard once again left everyone breathless. People will probably remember the 67-yard TD run, but he also had an amazing 30-yard run on UM’s first drive, and finished with 122 yards on 10 carries. He definitely struggled in the second half with a fumble and less than 10 yards on 4 carries, and there were signs that he might have been injured after that early fumble. Regardless, he scored his 6th career TD against OSU, and showed continued leadership and support for this team in whatever capacity he was asked. And while it does appear that it may take a fresh set of eyes to use him to the best of his abilities, he leaves UM as an all-time great both on and off the field.
Worst: Fun with Flags
Per usual, the Big Ten referees were out in full force, throwing 14 flags for around 130 yards. The customary WTF Call of the Week Award(TM) goes to the atrocious offensive PI on Roy Roundtree that even stopped Chris Spielman, but this game also featured a couple of personal fouls and a couple of missed calls, including the Norfleet facemask penalty on an OSU punt return that even Dennis thought was going to be called given how frequently he kept looking at the ref as he ran off the field. It was a chippy game, but one due less to players making solid, hard-hitting plays as much as stupid block-in-the-back penalties and out-of-bound hits 2-3 yards into the sideline. It felt like a MSU-UM game, and both of these teams should be better than that.
Best: Devin, the Defense, and the Future
Despite his struggles holding onto the ball and that bad interception to effectively end the game, I thought Gardner played reasonably well. He was under near-constant pressure all game (4 sacks), and had no running game to support him in the second half. 11-20 with a TD and an INT are decent numbers in only your 4th game of the season at QB and the first “real” road game (Minny barely counts as a football team given how they ended the season). Roy Roundtree also had a nice finishing game against OSU, highlighted of course by that 75-yard TD, while Gallon continued his sneaky-good season with 67 more yards. Both of these guys came on strong to end the season, and I think Gallon will have a fine senior year.
Now, you’d think after giving up 20 points in the first half the defense would be in for a Worst, but they held tough in the second half despite being on the field seemingly the whole time, only giving up 6 points (3 after a turnover that gave OSU the ball on the UM 10 yard line) and forcing a fumble. The line largely held until the 4th quarter, when Hyde and co. started to gash them inside. Mattison devised a defense that limited Miller to one 42-yard scramble but also sacked him 4 times. Miller had a good day passing the ball, but he noticeably slowed down the second half and, frankly, he remains far less dangerous with his arm than with his legs. It wasn’t a dominant performance by any means, and the corners were still unable to stay with OSU’s receivers at times, but it played well enough to win.
Will Campbell finished with 10 tackles, and the LBs all played reasonably well. Frank Clark had a bone-shattering sack on Miller in the first half and recovered a fumble caused by JMFR in the 4th to give the team a chance. The future looks bright for this unit, and it will be interesting to see how they play at the bowl game after a month to prepare and next season firmly in view.
Best: In the Wild
So on Wednesday, I attended the UM-Pitt basketball game at MSG with BronxBlueWife (BBW, for short, though not really in any way), and obviously wanted to support the team and rock the Maize and Blue. But as someone who graduated college about a decade ago, those old Steve & Barry t-shirts are starting to fall apart, and I haven’t been back to replenish the stock recently. But then I remembered that I DID have a shirt with the appropriate color scheme, fit, and yes you know where this is going…
Yes, that’s BronxBlue rocking the smedium t-shirt (stupid dryer). And yes, I am married, gainfully employed, and the owner of an automobile and a 401k. Also, apparently, a 4.2-head and an 8-year-old haircut. But these shirts do exist in the wild and are worn non-ironically. And as you can see, seats were VERY available.
So maybe outside of the bowl game, this will be it for my weekly recaps of games. I’m not knowledgeable enough of a basketball fan to really dissect the game in a meaningful way, and there are so many games that even short recaps would take quite a bit of time. I might knock one out before the conference season starts if anything eventful plays out, and maybe after a marquee game or two. But thanks to everyone who read through my rants and leaving comments. Go Blue!
Quick note – this got a little long. Not sure what got into me. Feel free to stick around.
So you’ve cried over the Haikus, seen the animated gifs, and read the numerous odes to the seniors as they leave UM. And it probably got a little dusty in whatever room you were sitting in when man-hugs were being doled out on the field.
And at the end of the day, UM was victorious on Senior Day, most of the seniors had their moments to shine, and the banner was raised for the last time in 2012.
Best: Those Who Came and Stayed Will Always Be Champions
I know that everyone has talked up last year’s seniors as epitomizing Bo’s “Stay and Be Champions” motto, but I’ve always felt this Senior class has been given a short shrift considering the environment that existed when they decided to come to UM. The 2011 class came to UM with a fair bit of uncertainty, what with a coaching change and a shift in offensive and defensive systems, but they all arrived on campus in a world where UM hadn’t missed a bowl game since Nixon was in office and had only one .500 record over that span. Like everyone, they figured UM would, at worst, suffer through a “down” season of 8 wins before challenging for more titles.
But we all know how that played out. And not only did the team struggle on the field, but off it players questioned Rich Rodriguez’s leadership and allegations of improprieties bubbled up before the season. Their reality was a program coming off the worst season in their history, with an embattled coach and a media ready to burn him at the stake. Few offensive and defensive stars could be found on the roster, highlighted by the fact that UM had two players taken in the 2009 draft and 3 in 2010, with one of them being a punting Space Emperor.
And yet, these kids showed up and played through another bowl-less year. They watched as the vultures started to circle RR and his staff, saw the defense continue to flail even as the offense finally started to come around. They fought to make a bowl game in 2010 even though it probably wasn’t enough to save their coach, and when he was replaced with Brady Hoke seemingly all of them accepted him with open arms, unlike the cooler reception received by RR in 2008. The cries of lost values and playing time were never heard and probably were never uttered; these kids came to play for Michigan and represent the University as best they could. By their words and deeds, they exceeded this bar immeasurably.
Now, I’m probably waxing too poetic about college kids; I’m sure that part of the silence is due to tighter controls inside the Fort, and I’d be foolish to ignore that some kids did transfer away from the school for reasons that probably had to do with playing time and classroom performance. But from Robinson to Kovacs, Roundtree to Campbell, this was a team of star-crossed recruits who signed up for a wounded program and rehabilitated it in 4 short years. They deserved to leave Michigan stadium the way they entered; winners and champions.
Best: The Food Court
Most people don’t realize just ingrained food courts have become to everyday life in America, as the advent of malls and massive shopping centers, increased air travel, and cross-country road trips created a necessity for centralized food stops that were both inexpensive as well as diverse so as to satisfy the disparate palates that frequented them. The classic food court tends to feature a name-brand burger joint like McDonald’s or Burger King, a Chinese food restaurant with a faintly-racist and/or suggestive name like “Fook Hing”, an “authentic” pizza place like Sbarro, an overpriced juice place for the “hippies”, a restaurant featuring the native cuisine of a country you’ve probably run roughshod through in Call of Duty, and a cookie depot for dessert. Of course, over the years these areas have evolved and adapted to different clientele and needs, so now you might find a decent sushi joint, a Kosher deli, or a shrunk-down version of a sit-down restaurant like T.G.I. Fridays or Shenanigans. But regardless of how they are constituted, the food court symbolizes options and a bit of gastronomical sanctuary in times of need.
So what does this have to do with Michigan football, you ask in your inner voice that probably sounds like Fred Savage? One of the memes of the past two years on this site is the Borges-Denard Fusion Cuisine that the offense has been forced to take on given the constraints and abilities of the parties involved. Logic goes that when you have an OC who loves a West Coast-style offense and he inherits a dynamic offensive player who is far better with his feet in the open field than standing tall inside a pocket, you try to meld the best of both to form an unstoppable offensive Frankenstein, but instead churn out an overcooked Turducken. You run the read-option while also trying to establish the run with the Pro set and I-form, you encourage the QB to scramble but also throw inside NFL windows between defenders, and you both fall back on the realization that with few exceptions, your guy is faster, more elusive, and plain “better” than the 20-year-olds trying to tackle him. And this works, most of the time.
The problem with the Cuisine characterization, though, is that it always revolved around a central, core element, one that remains the throughline across every down and dish. With Michigan, it’s always been about Denard Robinson, because since the day he stepped on campus he’s been the best offensive player on the team. During his tenure, his two best teammates on that side of the ball have been a center and a left-tackle, and it hasn’t been close. But “Denard” isn’t an offensive philosophy; it’s a “Break in Cast of Emergency” valve that kept this team afloat during the end of RR’s tenure as well as the beginning of Hoke’s.
A complete offense, one that Al Borges knows how to coach, requires options; he needs to be able to run the ball inside the tackles AND throw downfield, get a consistent push upfront to soften up the defense so that they bite on play-action, and hit the mid-distance passes to TEs as they are trailed by outmanned LBs and undersized safeties. He needs options and variety in order to dictate the flow of the game and adapt to what the defense is doing in response. In other words, he needs to be able to pick sushi one series, then throw our Gyros the next, followed by a Jamba Juice on third down. With Denard, the options always appeared more voluminous on paper than in practice, and it led to sub-optimal results when opposing defenses were able to slow down the preferred playcalls.
With Devin under center, that go-to “Denard” package is gone but it’s replaced with a more complete offense that, for better or for worse, largely relies on the rest of the team performing their duties or else the play is broken. Sure, Devin can still make something out of nothing when needed, but it’s also an offense that works like offenses of old, plus a few wrinkles like the always-effective, sparingly-used Fritz formation (THAT’s how you throw a screen). It grinds teams down through the air and ground, and given the cast of characters out there that is pretty impressive. In short, it’s an offense versus a playset, and while it pains me that Denard had to be injured for this to be occur, I think the offense (and the team) both this year and going forward are better for this maturation. The food court may have lost its signature restaurant, but the whole experience is a bit more filling when you are looking for something different.
Best: Keeping the Fritz running
I’m sure that Brian and others will go into greater detail, but I can’t get over how terrifying the Fritz/Diamond/DC bowel cleanser offense looks in select bursts. Any time that Denard and Gardner ran toward one side of the field, seemingly every Iowa defender followed them. If the two split, the defense looked absolutely lost on which player to cover, or was out of place in the event Denard Just Made A Play.
Going forward, I hope this component of the offense doesn’t disappear. It may mean recruiting another pure athlete like a Denard or Antonio Bass (please ignore the name of the clip) and fitting him in where possible, but guys like Norfleet are probably going to be most effective in running offenses with some misdirection and trickery, and rolling out the formation with players capable of throwing, running, or catching the ball is the type of “out athlete-ing” of opposition schools like UM should be doing.
Worst: Not more Questions?
Of course, I just spent 500 words waxing poetically about the state of the offense, so you’re probably wondering why I’m still bitching about the same unit? Well, on one hand you have them scoring at least 35 points per game since Devin took over, capped by Devin’s scintillating 6 TD performance in about 3 quarters of play. The team ground up the Hawkeyes both on ground and in the air for touchdowns on their first 6 drives of the game, and as ST3 noted, the WRs always had between 1 and eleventy-billion steps on the DBs. It was a dominating performance by a unit that seems to be hitting its stride.
BUT…at the same time, the past three weeks have featured some of the weaker defenses in the conference. Iowa is a solid middle in the country in terms of overall defense, while Minnesota just gave up 38 straight to Nebraska before they called the hogs off and Northwestern is, well, fine. Denard and the rest of the offense looked great against Illinois and Purdue as well, but were definitely stymied by the MSU’s and Notre Dame’s of the world, to say nothing of whatever Alabama did to them. And this has been a problem with Al Borges since he arrived at UM – the offense moves the ball easily against the dregs but grinds against tougher units.
Overall, though, it’s a unit that is definitely trending upwards, but one also buoyed by weaker opposition the past couple of weeks. And with OSU welcoming the Wolverines with a defense ranked below Tulsa, Minnesota, and 5-6 Virginia Tech, they may very well not see an above-average defense until January. So questions remain, but at this point I’m not sure we’ll have answers until 2013.
Best: We Found a Golden Ticket!
At the beginning of the season, the key question surrounding the offense was how the shotgun marriage between Denard (and by extension, the rest of the offensive players) and Al Borges would evolve in the second year. The general sentiment was the whole “square pegs and round holes” arguments you hear whenever teams are not moving the ball as effectively as they could/”should” be doing, with some siding with the pegs and others with the holes. Where you fall in this debate mirrors the arguments that seemingly boiled over every couple of weeks under RR, especially early on – do you expect Borges to alter his offense somewhat to highlight what the offense does best (i.e. Denard-centric), or do you expect him to integrate the current players as best he can into the system he knows? And when it failed, do you blame the carpenter (Borges) or the tools (the players) for the rock fights that ensued.
Borges’s offense demands accurate throws in-between levels, a running game that can find gaps on the ends AND generate holes up the middle so that teams have to respect classic play-action, and, perhaps most importantly, QBs who are smart enough to throw the ball away/take a loss when needed, but also capable of improvising and relying on athleticism when needed. With Jason Campbell in 2004, Borges seemingly met his perfect fit – a guru-approved QB with plus athleticism who struggled at times to put it together but was spectacular when he finally did. Not to mention the fact that he had two NFL first-rounders at the RB position in Ronnie Brown and Carnell “Cadillac” Williams (and a young Kenny Irons, who later was drafted in the 2nd round, was waiting on the bench under the one-year transfer rule). The Brandon Cox years that followed were less forgiving, but Borges was able to rebound at San Diego State with reasonable approximation of his 2004 Auburn team with Lindley and Ronnie Hillman, though Ryan Lindley was clearly not the same overall athlete as Campbell.
With Denard, Borges has the most athletic QB he’s ever had, but unfortunately accuracy hasn’t quite followed. While I am one to believe that part of Denard’s throwing issues are due to poor play-calling, he’s never going to be confused with a Henne or Brady out there, and this offense places more of a premium on hitting guys in stride than in out-running a safety in the open field. And because Denard is far more effective in the shotgun than in pro set formations, it eliminates running plays from Borges’s playbook, as he has shown only a lukewarm acknowledgment of the read-option offense Denard is best suited for.
But with Devin, Borges has that reasonably accurate QB who can look over the entire defense and buy some time with his legs, but who’s first inclination remains to throw the ball. Sure, he’ll run if you give him the lane, but he’s a scrambler more than a runner, and that athleticism is the type Borges seems best suited to harness, not the jitter-bug electricity of #16. So it looks like Al Borges found that last golden ticket, and it was sitting, er, stumbling around at WR all the time.
Worst: Fitz Injury
Up front, I am incredibly squeamish in a very particular way. I don’t mind blood or bruises, but whenever I see a leg twist the way it shouldn’t or an arm twist around more than about 100 degrees, I just imagine the cracking of bone and I lose it. And HD certainly doesn’t help, with its crystal-clear picture and high-quality still frames. This year we already had the horrific Marcus Lattimore injury, and now Fitz has broken any number of bones in his leg in a tackle that didn’t look that bad in real time but looks WAY worse on replay. His season is done, and while it has been a disappointing one for him statistically, he’s been a trooper all year and hopefully he’ll be able to return next year fully healthy.
Best: Greg Mattison, you beautiful bastard
Last week questions returned about this defense’s ability to slow down a dynamic offense like Northwestern, which at least early on found gaps on the edges and missed tackles were happening with regularity. While the team definitely settled down, highlighted by a 3-man front trick play to end the game, the cracks definitely shown through. So did this week smooth over those imperfections? In a sense yes, as UM held Iowa to 7 points until the game was well out of reach, and 0 catches by Iowa WRs. On the other hand, the fact that a team couldn’t connect a pass to a WR during a regulation game says quite a bit about the team’s offense, and Greg Davis’s singular goal to destroy BHGP’s soul.
But at the very least, the defense rebounded after a lackluster performance. Washington and Campbell clogged up the middle, Jake Ryan did Jake Ryan stuff, JRIII gave a great audition for a starting spot in 2013, and Kovacs ended his final home game the only way he could, recording 5 tackles and a clean-up sack to snuff out an Iowa drive. It was a great performance, and a proper send-off for a unit that has surprised everyone all year.
In particular, Will Campbell deserves credit for turning around his career a bit in this, his senior season. After coming to UM as a highly-touted recruit and struggling under GERG and the weight of those lofty rankings for 2 years, he’s made slow strides the past couple of years to being a competent DT in the Big 10, all the while keeping his nose clean and staying out of trouble. In hindsight, too much was probably expected of him coming out of high school, a monster of a child who never had to learn much technique (and certainly didn’t get much of it while in campus early on), but he’s been solid all season and helped to anchor a run defense that continues to shut teams down. I’m not sure if he’ll make it to the NFL, but his swan song has been a highlight for this unit.
Worst: Returning to Glory == 15 years
In light of Notre Dame’s divined return to relevance in college football, you’ve probably heard stories of echoes and Horesmen meeting up with Touchdown Jesus. Well, let it be said that 2012 will be the first time a Notre Dame team has won more than 10 games since 1993, and only the third time they’ve won 10 or more since 1997. Since they bottomed out at 3-9 in 2007, Notre Dame has won no more than 8 games in any season. Since 1997, UM has won 10 or more games 7 times, and were probably one Urban Meyer politicking away from playing for a title in 2006. Teams like Utah, TCU, and Auburn have all had better seasons as well, and while recruiting at Notre Dame has been solid, there is no assurance that this year’s ascension is anything more than a plucky independent team from a non-AQ conference riding some good fortune and a favorable schedule to an undefeated season. I know it’s Notre Dame and we should all be in awe of Brian Kelly turning top-1 recruiting classes into wins, but count my a skeptic on this being a true fortune turn for the Fighting Irish.
Worst: Everyone’s the worst, remix
Currently there are two undefeated BCS teams in the country – Notre Dame and Ohio State. One of them is barred from playing in a bowl game because their former head coach was a creep, and their current athletic director is an idiot. The only thing standing between the other and a Return to Glory(TM) is Lane f’ing Kiffin. Oh yeah, and an Alabama team that should have lost to Johnny Football by 20 but now has the inside track at repeating as champions and giving all college football fans another year of tie-wearing enthusiasts screaming their conference affiliation. I’m Catholic, but if Notre Dame walks out of the Coliseum still unblemished next week, I am going to start stockpiling supplies and building a boat.
And Ohio State was also the beneficiary of the now-weekly poor referee spot. You know, wait, this deserves it’s own section.
Worst: Hey ref, why don’t you bend over and use your good eye
So yeah, on the 3rd down run at the goalline of the Badger’s second-to-last drive of regulation against the Buckeyes, Montee Ball was down inside the 1 yard line. Thanks to ESPN’s super-duper sideline camera, everyone in America could see him and the ball well past the first down marker both digitally as well as on the sideline. Well, everyone except a line judge, who decided Ball and about 1 ton of Wisconsin cheese had moved OSU back 3 inches, bringing up 4th down. So of course, like any logical official the replay booth upstairs called down and said the last spot should be reviewed. ESPN then treated us all to another video clip showing Ball’s arm well beyond the first down marker when his knee hit. Brian Griese even commented that Ball would probably score on the next down and, perhaps, OSU should let him so as to keep more time on the clock.
Well, we all know what happened. The official upstairs confirmed the call on the field and Ball fumbled on the 1 inch line on the next play. Wisconsin ultimately scored to tie the game before losing in OT, but this inability to trust your eyes at least two times is becoming a trend in the Big 10. Last week it was the generous spot for Colter against UM and the PSU being robbed of a TD late in their game against Nebraska. This week’s Oregon-Stanford game also featured some weird spotting on the final Stanford drive of regulation, bringing up the question of why referees even replay ball spots if they almost never overturn them.
I know it’s a “judgment” call, but that’s true for virtually everything else in football and yet you can review many of those plays. In fact, a ball spotting is one of the least-subjective calls you can make; it’s where the ball was located when a knee or forearm touched the ground or a player’s body touched outside the field of play. You can look at a video still, see where the contact happened, then look where the ball is. You even have hash marks as helpful guideposts. The fact that it is 2012 and we are still having games decided by some myopic adherence to “human error” as part of the game is ludicrous for a billion-dollar sport.
Worst: Coaching ‘em Up.
People now equate this term with Mark Dantonio’s “amazing” ability to turn lower-rated recruits into good players, but the original master alchemist of turning 2 *’s into real stars was Kirk Ferentz. Guys like Shonn Greene, Pay Angerer, Captain America, and Amari Spievey went from recruiting also-rans to future NFL draft picks, all the while winning conference titles and bowl games against “superior” teams. And for this, both the myth and Kirk’s pocketbook grew by monstrous proportions.
Of course, the reality behind the narrative is a bit more muddled. Iowa has been sending players to the NFL at a rate that is startling higher than you probably expect; they are currently tied with Florida with the 6th-most players currently in the NFL*, ahead of teams like Alabama, OSU, Michigan, and Notre Dame. Their best players tend to be along the offensive and defensive lines, where good coaching and physical maturation can be the difference between oversized 17-year-olds becoming stars or cautionary tales for television specials about America’s growing obesity and the diseases that afflict them. And those stars, like Adrian Clayborn, Riley Reiff, Chad Greenway, and Bryan Bulaga, were rated pretty highly by recruiting services coming out of high school, and lived up to their billing.
To me, Ferentz is as much Moneyball and a favorable media presence as displaying a true ability to unearth diamonds in the recruiting rough. Norm Parker was a mainstay as DC under Ferentz until this year, and he installed a system that replaced seniors with redshirt juniors like clockwork, mitigating some talent disadvantages with a disciplined, consistent play style taught to kids for 2-3 years before they became starters (a lot like Northwestern at QB, where every year it seemed like a new RS junior QB was ready to take over). And on offense, Ferentz was all about keeping his backs clean behind an offensive line that wouldn’t necessarily blow you off the ball but could wear down the weaker teams in the conference. And when the going got tough, well, this would emerge:
And because of Ferentz’s early success, many people began to conflate his latter seasons with the prior ones into one “winning” tableau that wasn’t particularly true. Case in point, since 2004 Iowa has a record of 54-36; MSU, 53-36; Missouri 63-29. I know his best seasons were in 2002 and 2004, but his best seasons were nearly a decade ago, and he’s been averaging about 8 wins a season since 2002, with the number trending down as we get deeper into Justin Timberlake’s solo career.
My point isn’t to disparage Ferentz or his accomplishments, but to highlight what feels like a trend in the Big 10 going forward; this will be a conference dominated by OSU and UM going forward, and the “middle class” teams like MSU, Iowa, and NW will probably be squeezed out. Whereas years ago Ferentz seemed able to transform hay into gold, it looks now like Iowa is going to fall into that 7-8 wins plateau that usually drives non-Northwestern schools to “look for a change of direction” at the top. But of course, Ferentz has a contract that makes firing him virtually impossible financially at least until the latter part of the decade. So either his recruiting needs to pick up or that old “coaching magic” better return to Iowa City.
* Of course, #8 on this list is California, reminding us all that coaching may be a teeny-bit overrated when talking about certain “underdog” teams.
Best: Bring On Ohio State
Nothing much else to add except bring on the Buckeyes. This will be there season, but it should be Michigan’s as well. And if it plays out the way I think, I might break 5,000 words in my next post.
So, yeah… No real reason not to have written one of these for Minnesota except, well, it was Minnesota and I missed most of the game. I caught the torrent of the game a couple days later, but by then who wants to read stale comments that have been regurgitated by 20+ MGoBoard posts? Nobody, that’s who. Including my wife, who’ll read anything I write because it is at least tangible and justifies the amount of time I spend with my “internet friends.”
In my defense, the major plot lines that emerged against the Gophers continued this week, so if you want just read this twice and consider yourself covered.
Best: Knowing is half the battle
One of the seminal television shows of my youth was G.I. Joe, which taught me that (a) snakes are bad, (b) super-secret special operations units eschew traditional uniforms for chest-barring fatigues that better highlight your guns and massive chest tattoo, and most importantly (c) many useful life lessons through their “Knowing is half the battle” PSAs at the end of programs. While the show itself focused on a world that defied physics, geo-political boundaries, and anything approximating political correctness, the messages contained in these PSAs were far more relevant to younger children: be kind to others and don’t judge them, don’t lie, don’t go into stranger’s cars, and stop-drop-and-roll if you catch on fire.
While the individual messages varied, the key takeaway from them all was that difficult situations were far less daunting once you knew the proper way to respond. Knowledge, in other words, made the unknown less scary because it provided context, a touchstone from which to measure the circumstance logically.
One of the major concerns that’s been voiced in the brief time Brady Hoke and Al Borges have been on campus was how Borges’s West-Coast-centric philosophy would mesh with Denard’s skill set (I count myself firmly in this group). But I think the greater issue, or at least the one that has been transitioning to the forefront of these debates since Notre Dame or so is “how will the offense look after Denard, especially at quarterback.” Everyone knows what you get with Denard, but due to his surprising durability the past couple of years (until Nebraska), we never had to contemplate a world in which Denard could not play. The future was always ahead of us, but it was hidden behind dreadlocks, offensive records, and the reality that #16 was the best option come Saturday. 2013 was just a calendar you’d pick up in February for $3 at Meijers.
Sure, people spoke of Shane Morris coming in next year and starting as a true frosh a la Henne, or Bellomy taking ahold of the mantle while Devin grew into the WR position. But these felt like complaints whispering in the ether, even after the ND game when (at least to me), a louder contingent of fanbase began to turn on the most prominent holdover of the RR era. But nobody knew how this offense would function without Denard at the helm, and that scared people a bit. You’d seen glimpses at the end of blowouts and when Denard would step out for a couple of plays, but certainly nothing definitive.
And then Nebraska happened. All of a sudden, we saw a vision of the future, and it was 3 INTs, 2.4 YPA, and double-digit yards in a half sans penalties. In other words, it scared the S**T out of people. If Bellomy really was the #2 QB behind Denard, then just how abysmal was Devin Gardner, a former 5* QB who people figured was moved to WR because his athleticism filled a need on the squad and would be the top QB option next year? Was he really worse than that? Nobody knew, at least outside of Fort Schembechler, and that terrified everyone. It was knowledge, and it seemingly confirmed the doomsday scenarios running through everyone’s minds.
But then a funny thing happened – Gardner had a chance to practice at QB for a week and the coaches gave him a chance at Minnesota, and he played pretty well. He threw the ball on time, had some nice touch, and while he definitely had his cringe-worthy moments, he also did this. And he followed that up with another solid game against Northwestern, warts and all, and the knowledge we had been missing for years was finally starting to fill out. While it is still an imperfect portrait, fans now have a far better idea of how this offense will look going forward after Denard, and it doesn’t look like the QB position will revert to the SheridanThreetDamnit! of 2008.
This isn’t a cartoon and nobody knows if this present remain persistent in the future, but at least now people have something to hold onto going forward, something to keep them grounded. And that’s worth quite a bit.
[ED: JUMP WITH US]
Quick scheduling note – I meant to get this out on Sunday, but then a megastorm named Sandy up and broke my heart (and large swaths of NYC’s infrastructure), and so I’m just now getting around to publishing. I’m sure you were all waiting with bated breath.
In the immortal words of our benevolent leader, “so, that happened.” It was either equally as bad as it looked (offense) and yet deeply encouraging (defense) depending on your predilections, and maybe both if you take the long view of what it means for the team. Throw in the ramifications it has both for the Legends Division (or Leaders, Coastal, Not-Plains State, or whatever dumb name they’ve plopped on a $10 bumper sticker) as well as the Rose Bowl bid, and Saturday’s game may be the defining moment for the program this year. Or Nebraska could gack away a game or two against PSU and MSU and it would be nothing more than a speedbump on the way to a 4-loss Big Ten team playing a pissed-off and rested USC or Oregon in Pasadena. BIG TEN!!!!
Worst: Lowered Expectations
The funny thing is that, despite all evidence to the contrary, I never envisioned a world in which Denard Robinson would miss significant playing time since he arrived on campus. I think that is due in large part to the fact that in 2009 and 2010 there was always a competent starter/backup in Tate Forcier around to fill in, and the couple of times he went out last year it never felt like it changed the outcome of the game (unless you think 4th-and-22 is a good down and distance to catch MSU guessing). With Tate and Gardner, the feeling was always that both of them could do a rough approximation of Denard in this offense in a pinch, or at least an offense that could be successful given the talent on the field. Backup Tate was the reason UM beat Illinois in 2010, and Devin showed enough last season to remind people why he was one of the most coveted dual-threat QBs coming out of HS. There were options in the event Denard went down, even if they weren’t optimal.
But when the year started, we knew Gardner was going to focus primarily on being a WR (though he was “still prepared” for QB in a pinch…apparently as long as that pinch didn’t actually happen during a game), leaving the depth chart a RS freshmen and the football version of Everlast (I mean this in the best way possible – I LOVED Everlast in HS) to assume the mantle if Denard went down for more than a series.
Before this game, Bellomy had taken about a dozen snaps, none meaningful, and so it was hard to get a bead on how he, and more importantly the offense, would perform with him as QB1.
Well, after 8-ish drives for about 50-ish non-penalty yards, we now have an idea about how a non-Denard offense will perform against a competent defensive unit. Again, small sample sizes and mid-game switch caveats apply, but without Denard this offense is just not that good. The offensive line struggles to get holes open for the RBs, who have trouble making guys miss, while WRs have a hard time getting separation from DBs that are above-average but certainly not shutdown. And if they do get open, the balls lack some velocity and may lead them into bigger hits from safeties and linebackers.
It, in a nutshell, is the type of offense people saw in 2008, but without the soothing sense of growing pains and more the realization that the talent is either very young or a poor fit for the system the team wants to run. It should be competent against poor defenses, which helps with NW, Minny, and to a lesser extent OSU coming up, but it means the defense and special teams have to be on the top of their games to keep the score close. It makes everything harder, which should be distressing since this was the same outfit that hasn’t scored a TD against a defense with a pulse in 10+ quarters.
Last week I said that beating MSU didn’t tell us that much about this team except that it was probably better than a 4-4 team. This game didn’t tell us much about how this team would fare with Denard at the helm for a full game, but it did illuminate just how quickly the bottom can fall out if he isn’t on the field.
Best: Current Expectations
What everyone needs to remember (and that includes the me from the section above) is that Denard isn’t out for the season; he apparently is fine and ready to go for next week. In a night game against a bunch of fired-up Cornhuskers with basically their season on the line, Denard was still moving the team down the field relatively successfully and was in a position to take the lead when he was knocked out. Given how the defense was playing at that time (and how they played well into the second half), it is safe to assume that the score wouldn’t have ended 23-9 if he had stayed in the whole game. And Nebraska isn’t as bad as some of their defensive metrics would lead you to believe – they played some cupcakes in the OOC besides UCLA, but so far their B1G slate has been nothing but bowl-quality teams. That housing by OSU also looks slightly better when you consider 14 points came on a TAINT and a punt return TD.
The defense kept UM in this game far later than most expected when Bellomy took over, with the 3rd quarter ending with UM only down 7 points. It was the type of game where the road team steals it at the end, but the team came up a bit short. But looking ahead, only OSU has an offense that should be able to move the ball against Mattison’s defense, and even that might be a bit of a stretch given how Miller struggles throwing the ball. Minnesota and Iowa have decent defenses on paper, but neither is a world-beater and both have struggled to slow down any of the above-average offenses they’ve faced this season. So right now, despite some bumps on the road, this year’s team still has as good a shot at making it to the second B1G game as anyone in the division.
This is the worst Dude…Where’s My Car homage EVER!
Best: Sonic Youth
While I am loathe to say that any season is “lost” when a team still has a chance to make a BCS bowl game, I always felt that this year was going to be way heavier on the transitional pains than last year’s, when everything seemed to turn up aces for Hoke and there were a number of older playmakers on both sides of the ball to give this team an extra gear. As many had predicted, all of the fumble recoveries and arm punt receptions had to swing the other way, and so while a possible Rose Bowl bid should never be besmirched, 2012 felt like the year where the differences between the past and present regimes would become most obvious, the oil and water least likely to integrate.
One silver lining, though, is that it means the younger players will get ample opportunities to see the field. And while the results have at times be mixed, it is clear that the foundation is being laid for this version of Michigan football to be what it will be going forward, especially on defense. Beyond the obvious (Jake Ryan, Funchess, Taylor, Clark), kids like Jenkins-Stone and Ojemudia (especially with a really athletic interception this game) have shown flashes with limited playing time, which bodes well for the future. Sure, there are still holes at the skill positions and pass rushing is apparently running security on the Enterprise, but unlike in years past you can see the succession of players and how they’ll fit into the systems being employed. And with Hoke having earned a longer leash, there is less fear of these players being square pegs for some successor’s round holes.*
* And yes, that looks way weirder in print than in my head.
Best: Great Garrett Rivas They’ve Got Kickers
In 2010, UM’s kickers were a combined 4 of 14 at field goals, for an astounding 28.6%. The long that year? 37 yards. And the long for the Gibbons was 24 yards. Fast forward two years and UM has hit 13 of 15 FGs for 86.7%, and both Wile (48 yards) and Gibbons (52 yards) have hit career-longs from distances that actually feel appropriate for that designation. In a game of inches, having guys who can put the ball through the uprights from distance in high-pressure situations may well have already punched UM’s ticket to a good bowl game, and at the very least gives the team hope once the ball crosses the opponents 40.
Worst: Hold Onto the Damn Ball
One of MGoBlog’s favorite memes (well, besides Lloyd Brady/photoshopping and cats) is Brian’s imploring punt returners to not allow the football to leave their possession until the whistle is blown.* We all laugh now because, for the most part, the returners DO seem to hold onto the ball at a reasonable clip, even if it means fair-catching a ball inside the five and letting it roll/fumble to the 2, which totally didn’t happen this game ever.
Unfortunately, it appears that whatever afflicted the kicking units didn’t so much recede as migrate to the WRs and TEs, which historically have displayed great hands. This year? Whether its been receivers failing to locate the ball, holding on in traffic, or just plain drops, there have been an alarming number of catchable balls that have not been reeled in. Heck, here are the updated UFR numbers from MSU.
The numbers don’t look horrible, but it gets wonky around moderate difficulty
(only 59%). By comparison, here’s last year’s numbers (sans Va Tech)
That’s 79% for moderately difficult, and based on how Brian grades out these throws those are the ones that we saw against Nebraska and, frankly, are the types you expect to see against a good pass defense. Those windows are small and safeties are closing in, so if the ball reasonably close the receiver needs to hold on. This isn’t an indictment of the current receiving core, but just evidence that lots of drives are stalling out because those “tough” catches from last year are being missed.
As to who IS to blame for this deficiency at WR, we’ve heard all the arguments. Personally, I put some blame on RR because he wasn’t getting the #1 receivers that any offense needs, even one predicated on shorter drops and more YAC. Some falls on the transition, which hurt recruiting and led to Hoke focusing more on the defense his first class because (a) it was an area of weakness, and (b) when in a pinch, I’m sure he found it easier to sell the side of the ball he knew more about. But a non-zero amount of blame falls on Hoke and Borges, though, because while there are legitimate reasons for last year’s recruiting to have a limited skill position haul, this year’s crop, while promising in terms of sleepers, is basically Treadwell or bust. This feels disturbingly like the RR-Pryor dance, and while QB is way more important than WR in terms of recruiting, it still looks like a position of need relies too heavily on nabbing an elusive target. I know that’s part of recruiting, but with Roundtree leaving and Gardner likely moving back to QB, I worry that these numbers may continue into next year.
Also, regardless of who is WR next year, the pox that apparently is on every ball Bellomy throws needs to end. Sacrifice chickens in the locker room if you must.
I ask Jobu about Smith interception, ball full of fear. I offer cigar, rum.
*If for some reason you need a refresher, check out the 2009 “hype” video, in which it almost feels like the ball is repulsed by the colors maize and blue.
Best: Referees and Replays
The storyline that seemingly was pushed under the rug for those about Michigan’s offensive impotence, Denard’s injury, and Nebraska’s swarming defense was the almost-comical officiating at various points in the game. The highlight was of course the 45 yards of penalties on the one second-half Michigan drive that led to a score, including the “life bird” of penalties, the 15-yard “sideline bitching” penalty that Bo Pelini earned after calling the refs “BASS-Bowls!” for a questionable personal foul. There were leading penalties on hits that were questionable, multiple out-of-bounds late hit penalties that wouldn’t have gotten the ambulances on the field, and a couple of pass interference calls that got both fanbases riled up.
And as it applies to replays, the burden of proof that must be met to uphold or reverse a ruling apparently ranges from a misdemeanor to what you need to overturn a Constitutional amendment. I totally support the idea that replays are used to “get it right”, but at some point it is a game with ambiguities, and no camera angle or shot-by-shot review will make that any easier. Balls move a little when a guy is diving onto the ground, and figuring out “control” and “possession” is by its very nature open to interpretation. I guess it is a collateral cost for trying to get it right, but it is still annoying to see Roy Roundtree seemingly make a great catch yet see it overturned because some of the ball hit the ground while another part is clearly under his arm and secure against his body.
Worst: Borges’s sense of “The Moment”
We have discussed Al Borges as an offensive coordinator, and my position remains that he seems competent with elite talent and not wholly innovative without it. He’ll be fine when Michigan if fielding NFL teams; he will probably be underwhelming until they do.
But one point that has driven me crazy is his seemingly lack of all sense for “the moment.” In Bill Simmons’s Book of Basketball, he mentioned that for all of Clyde Drexler’s abilities on the court, he may have been the worst “great player” at properly responding when the time called for a momentum-changing play. His best example was Drexler trying to hit a “response” three against Jordan and the Bulls in the Finals after Jordan had drained another three during that dominant run in Game 1 of the 1992 Finals. He air-balled it horribly, and it further deflated a struggling Blazers team.
With Borges, it seems to be his inability (or stubbornness) to vary up his play-calling when being creative or unorthodox is the best option. Witness the numerous times he’ll have the offense line up under center with 1 WR option on the goal line, even though the defense is terrified of Denard in space trying to get to a crease. I won’t kill him for the Bellomy play-calling because there wasn’t much he could do once it became clear that Fitz and line could not get one extra yard, Bellomy couldn’t get the ball to the receivers before the 9000 blitzing Cornhuskers got to him, and if it did leave his hand the receiver would spike it into the ground with the hate of a thousand suns.
But for the past two years, it is clear that Borges has a plan for this offense, and it was based on the presumption that he would call his play and the defense would react. When that works, you get Illinois and Purdue 2012; when it doesn’t, you get ND 2012 and VaTech 2011. That approach will never change, and while it will probably get UM’s offense to a consistent level we haven’t seen since the mid-2000’s, it also means that those serendipitous “RPS +3” will be few and far between.
Best: Power of Denard
Not that this needed to be said, but that Denard Robinson kid is pretty good at football. We have simply become accustomed to his brilliance, witnessed by the fact that in about 1 1/2 quarters his offense generated about 170 yards; the team finished with 188 for the game. He covers up so many sins for this line, running backs, and receiving core, and the offense has subconsciously become so reliant on his playmaking, that everything just crumbles when he isn’t in there. Even last year with Gardner, a player with similar abilities on paper, the differences in how the offense functioned were jarring. Blocks are longer with Denard, receivers find those few extra steps to get open, and the backs at least get a chance to hit the line without 2 LBs in the hole.
I was one of the most vocal proponents of Tate Forcier when the great Tate/Denard debate broke out in 2010. Sure, Tate had played well in spurts in 2009, but it sounded like Denard had pulled ahead of him coming into the season. Still, I held strong to the argument that Tate should keep the spot because of his past accomplishments and the fact that he “looked” more like a QB. I want to think that it wasn’t because of anything backward and myopic in my thinking of the QB position* but because Denard just seemed too raw, too much an athlete who could out-run the opposition and had a good arm but lacked the abilities to harness those abilities in a coherent, consistent offense. 2 years later, he’s basically the one reason the offense is able to move the ball and gives me the mental chubby I haven’t felt since Barry Sanders was taking hand-offs.
He gives this team a chance to win every game, and no matter how this season ends, his spot in my mental Hall of Fame has already been spoken for.
* I have always liked mobile QBs provided they knew what how to keep their arm under control. Woody Dantzler, Tommy Frazier, and Eric Crouch were three of my favorite QBs in college.
Due to time constraints the past couple of weeks, I caught only parts of the Purdue and Illinois games. Luckily, what I saw made a post like this unnecessary, unless you think “Best: Everything”, “Best: I’m Kirk Herbstreit and I like to jinx Purdue” and “Worst: Moar Fitz rushing” embodies deeply thoughtful analysis.
Plus, I was kind of saving up for this MSU game. The first two weeks of the B1G season looked like tuneups to start the season, with MSU being the unofficial beginning of “Run for the Roses” in Pasadena, and nothing transpired during those first couple of games to change that opinion, at least in UM’s eyes. MSU, though, stumbled to start the season, and were definitely looking to dig themselves out of a Sparty-inflicted hole that included tough loses to OSU and Iowa. And so a rivalry game + MSU reeling + “William Gholston isn’t a jerk, he’s just misunderstood” = a fertile ground for highlighting the waxing and waning of UM’s first victory in the history of this series.*
* This series having started in 2008, one year after Microsoft Encarta and the Mayan calendar apparently arrived in East Lansing.
UM was only 1-4 against Dantonio heading into this game, and for all of the negative press the guy gets here and across the greater UM blogosphere, he’s turned a mediocre State program into a consistent winner, something it hasn’t been since, I don’t know, the 1950’s. Seriously, check out these season records from 1950 to 2011. People around here complain about UM not making a bowl game for 2 years; MSU had won 10 games only twice in the past 60+ years before Dantonio glared his way onto campus.
And it wasn’t just the losing to MSU that drove people crazy, it was how. Sometimes they won in dramatic fashion in OT after UM made a miraculous comeback; other times it was a dominating performance on the ground. Almost always, though, MSU had the better team AND found a way to confound not only the Michigan players, especially Denard Robinson, but also the coaching staffs. There’s a reason that the game previews for 2010, 2011, and 2012 kept pointing out that MSU was successfully jumping the snap on virtually every play, yet it kept happening. Or how MSU found a way to consistently gash the UM defense for yards on the edges despite everyone knowing that MSU’s gameplan was taken from the 1959 game program.
So beating MSU needed to happen to not only restore order back to the world, but also to validate the notion that the program was back on its way to the relative dominance most people remember from the 90s/00s. The OSU win last year was a nice step in that direction, as was the bowl game, but beating OSU is rarely presumed when the season begins; beating MSU is far more the norm. And while I’m sure many fans are loathe to admit it, this iteration of UM football needed to beat them to dispel the notion that Dantonio was plated in some impenetrable Wolverine armor (a similar feeling seemed to have set in on Notre Dame until this year). He’s been cut by Hoke and Co., and once that happened that tightening you have in your chest when MSU takes the lead late will hopefully disappear.
* I know this is a super-tired reference. The “good job, good effort” kid was the next in line.
I’m sure this is a bit of coach-speak, but it is also something that needed to be said. Since, oh, the Eastern Michigan game, I don’t think most people saw MSU as a legitimate Big 10 championship team. The offense was too crippled by a porous line, poor WRs, and a somewhat-shaky QB to keep pace with teams like Wisconsin, UM, OSU, and Nebraska. The Iowa game cemented their ceiling for the year at 7-8 wins, even with an elite defense.
Outside of the Alabama game, though, UM’s ceiling was never defined. Notre Dame was a tough loss but one that felt more self-inflicted than the team meeting a superior opponent. Purdue and Illinois proved only that UM was probably as good as Louisiana Tech and and Marshall. MSU, frankly, was not going to validate UM’s season, but only give them another breakpoint from which to calibrate their potential.
And that’s what Hoke encapsulates in this statement. He recognizes that MSU is a rival and the game mattered, but this wasn’t the season. Nebraska and OSU will be tougher opponents, and the near-certain B1G title game and (hopefully) the Rose Bowl bid will be far more emblematic of Michigan’s 2012 season. Last year expectations were such than an MSU win would have been one to hang the team’s hat on; this year, they’re another 4-4 team that gave UM their best shot and came up a little short.
Worst: “Rivalry” game?
Listen, I can totally get behind belittling MSU’s fans. I was at school there for 3 years, and I witnessed two riots, one “celebration” of a hockey championship during a season in which tickets to games were very available, and thousands of instances of drunken 40-year-olds hitting on college girls outside of dorms as the men’s belies jiggled under super-tight “Go Green! Go White!” shirts they picked up from the local Quality Dairy. It is a school that prides itself on making boxes*, having “awesome parties with hot chicks!”, and being able to count, and while the people there are not as bad as you think, comparisons between the two schools tend toward the Blue Team.
That said, the oft-repeated refrain from UM faithful that MSU isn’t a “rival” is just silly. Sure, OSU remains UM’s most consistently-excellent foe, and 30 years ago the Notre Dame and Michigan clashes typically featured top-10 programs shooting for a national title. But MSU is the other major program in the state, and really the only one in the footprint that features two public schools that (at least ostensibly) draw from the same high schools and communities (Purdue and Notre Dame and Illinois and Northwestern feature the whole private/public differences and the related non-geographically draws). In my high school class of around 160 kids, we had 3 who went to UM and about 40 who went to MSU. At other schools, the numbers were a bit closer, but the fact remains that if you go to either university, you are more than likely to have spent years of your life cohabitating with peers on the other side.
For Michigan fans, beating MSU feels like it should; despite EVERY MSU student claiming he/she was accepted but declined/never wanted to apply/”totally loved MSU the minute they walked on campus and never thought Ann Arbor was anything special”, you secretly felt most of them wanted to go to UM but couldn’t. It also poked a weird hole in the meta-argument that the “jocks” went to MSU and the “nerds” went to UM (which never made sense since it’s not like either team is comprised of the general student body). For MSU, beating UM was a clear rebuttal to all the crap I spewed above; a tangible instance of MSU beating UM in something that both schools’ fanbases cared about. This wasn’t a “our Particle Physics major is better” or “our mascot is cooler according to Playboy.com”, but a win for MSU and a loss for UM.
The point is that it matters to both sides, and anyone mouthing off about how beating MSU didn’t matter, that they are not UM’s rival, is just displaying his/her naivety and/or unfounded arrogance. And while I definitely see this year being the end of MSU’s “dominant run” in the Big 10, they will remain a key opponent for championship game and bowl bids under Dantonio. MSU ain’t going anywhere, and trying to ignore them or minimize their threat doesn’t impress anyone.
* I know that packaging engineering is more than making boxes, but that ESPN special a couple of games ago didn’t help to dispel that idea.
Worst: Still with the unimaginative offensive schemes?
Al Borges seems like a nice guy, and I definitely see how the offensive skill players he inherited don’t mesh with the play-calling he prefers to call. Denard is great for the offense that RR runs, where his feet lead the way and defenses worry about gap control and QB Oh Noes! for 4 quarters. Under Borges, he’s an oval-ish peg trying to fit into a parallelogram-ish hole. He’s not super-accurate, the WRs he throws to are either too small, too slow, or too inexperienced for complete optimization, and the dominant tailback and massive linemen are either in red shirts or still playing HS. It’s like owning a 3DO in 1994 – it looks really cool on paper, but the controls don’t work the way they should and the pictures on the game boxes always look cooler than the games themselves.
That said, this offensive ineptitude against anyone with a top 50-ish defense needs to end. 2011 Notre Dame and Nebraska are the only decent defenses that Michigan really scored on, and even with those two performances there were a myriad of factors beyond “offensive efficiency” that led to those outbursts. It’s gotten to the point that I’d rather the team spot opponents 10-15 points just to get Borges out his routine and let up on the reins a bit.
Everyone knows about the much-bemoaned I- and screaming “multiple TEs in on the line so we are clearly running”-formations, but it’s also the option runs that are almost never options and a vertical passing game that can charitably be described as “adventurous” at times. It’s a mindset that calls for plays that he knows his team just cannot execute the way he wants, and while I get the argument that he needs to run what he knows, it is infuriating to see this team get stymied in the red zone or go three-and-out repeatedly with offensive play calling that only calls on Denard to run 6 times in the second half before the final drive. The Denard Borges Fusion Cuisine is like a restaurant in an airport – it looks good because you are starving and have a 2-hour layover with the only other options being a Sbarro’s and one of those airport bars where businessmen from Des Moines hit on the “mature” female bartender who also doubles as the short-order cook. Chop the menu in half, sprinkle in a bunch of designed runs and screens to keep Spartan Pride from killing him on gap blitzes, and wait until Shane Morris is a Sophomore.
Best: This is how we do it!
On the other end of the coordinator spectrum stands Greg Mattison, whose work restoring the validity of “Greg” after Mr. Robinson, Mr. Williams (I’m ignoring the superfluous G), Mr. Davis, and Mr. Brady tried their best to ruin it deserves serious nomination come the off-season. In 2010 Michigan was ranked 110th in total defense, above a bunch of directional schools and below such juggernauts as Rice, Duke, and Baylor. Today? They’re 10th. That’s not just impressive, that’s damn near a miracle. Every time a see Jake Ryan burst through the line to snag a QB in the backfield or J.T. Floyd break up another pass attempt, I involuntary pull one of these:
Yes, this is the same video. No, I won’t apologize for my love of mid-90’s R&B. You’re just lucky I couldn’t think of anything catchy/appropriate for Next.
Say what you will about MSU’s offense this year, they still had one of the better RBs in the country in Bell, a competent QB, and the laser-focus to circle the Michigan game on the calendar and pull every goofy play they can out for it. Yet, outside of two drives that netted MSU 170 yards (helped in part by a fake punt that accounted for almost 30 yards), they record 134 yards over 9 more drives and barely broke 300 yards for the game. Bell, who was used as the human battering ram that in years past gashed the Wolverines, had a quiet 68 yards and nothing longer than 8 yards. Maxwell threw a pick and a TD and never looked super-comfortable out there, and his repeated failed attempts to pick on Floyd at the end of the first half should shock anyone who remembers watching this only a couple of years ago.
Michigan won yesterday because the defense is a legitimate threat, and that transformation is due in large part to Greg Robinson (and Brady Hoke) making it so.
(Of course, this raises the questions surrounding why big-time coordinators were apparently “out of budget” under Carr and RR, but that’s for another day. Minnesota, let’s say.)
Best: Poor Sinead O’Connor
Everyone likes to say that Brenda Gibbons’ fondness for brunettes powers his cold-as-ice heart as he kicks yet another game winner. Personally, I think he derives his power from hair follicles in general, their faint aroma wafting by his nostrils as he lines up a half-dozen yards behind the ball. 2 years ago he was 1 for 5 in FGA, with a long of 24. In other words, a shade over an extra point. Two years later, he’s 10 of 12 with a long of 42 and a couple of game winners to boot. Someone needs to be in Columbus at the end of the season with whatever machine they use to fumigate Abercrombie & Fitch with their “cologne” and make sure whatever subconscious memories that are triggered in Gibbons are ready to go.
Worst: Recidivism on the rise in East Lansing
Usually the MSU-UM game coincides with the yearly East Lansing work-release program. I leave it to the reader to
bunch of convicts
to see what I am referring to.
Best: Liveblog Moderators are people too.
A redundant but totally necessary thank you should go out to the posters who moderate these liveblogs. I’ve yet to moderate one, as my proclivity to immediately approve anyone who references TMNT or “No Fear” t-shirt slogans would bog down the proceedings immensely, but watching the feed yesterday made me happy that no matter how many whiny posts go through, there must have been literally millions that didn’t. To imagine the horrors these men and women must endure every Saturday and yet function for the rest of the week is truly shocking, and they have my gratitude. Of course, that and $2.99 would get you a commemorative “I Was There” pin from the 2011 B1G championship game, but at least it’s something.