I did not make this headline up
So I’ve always written these diaries as close to the actual event as possible, to capture my in-the-moment thoughts on the games. But with a bit of a down period on the horizon, I figured I’d take a crack at trying to recap games from the past. So this is the first in what I hope will be a semi-regular “Retro” diary series of famous Michigan games in the past. While I have my list, I welcome any suggestions in the comments. They can be football, basketball, hockey, anything you want, provided I can find a video of it somewhere online.
A Little History
Ah 1997, when Puffy was considered new on the scene...
As I’ve come to realize recently, there are LOTS of UM fans who were not born/young’ins when Michigan last won a national championship. Me, I was a junior in HS, so for some of you this is probably a baby talking to a slightly younger baby. But with these retro posts, I’m going to provide a bit of context, both as I remember it as well as from history, surrounding these games.
At the start of the season, expectations for Michigan were pretty tempered. Lloyd Carr was entering his third year, his first two seasons being 4-loss affairs that continued matching 8-4 years during Gary Moeller’s last two seasons. They were coming off a 3-point loss in the Outback Bowl to Alabama, played at Houlihan’s Stadium, known at the time as the “Big Sombrero” and now as a shameless attempt to capitalize on the lasting legacy of Patches O’Houlihan.
Anyway, Michigan seemed mired in an extended post-Bo doldrums, good enough to finish toward the bottom of the top-25 but certainly not an elite national team. Honestly, the one notable thing Carr’s teams did consistently was upset OSU on their way to undefeated seasons, twice beating OSU when the Buckeyes were ranked #2 in the country. Carr absolutely owned John Cooper, which on one hand was glorious to watch when it happened but also infuriating given how Michigan was still usually headed to some crappy mid-Florida bowl each year.
Michigan entered the year ranked #14, one of those gentleman rankings bluebloods like UM got each season because sports writers were REALLY lazy in the 90’s and apparently every season started with a hit of the old reset button on the Playstation. Their first game was against Colorado, returning to the scene of the crime. But Kordell Stewart, Rashaan Salaam, and Michael Westbrook were long gone, and Michigan absolutely shut down the Buffs 27-3. Baylor was equally plastered the following week, and then Notre Dame put up an admirable fight before falling.
Michigan finally was on the road to open the B1G season against IU, and the less said about that game the better for the Hoosiers. Northwestern followed with similar results, and all of a sudden Michigan was 5-0 having given up a total of 26 points(!), 14 of which came against ND.
And then Iowa happened. If Twitter had existed during this era, it would have been a bloodbath in that first half. Iowa had a solid offense and an underrated defense, and ended the first half with a flourish, picking off a Griese pass with a bit over 2 minutes to go, scoring quickly, and then pinning UM deep again. With about 20 seconds to go, everyone just hoped Michigan would go into the half down 6 and regroup. Then Tim Dwight caught a deep punt at midfield, made basically everyone miss twice, and scored a TD to send Iowa into the half up 14. It was dinosaur punting when those beasts plodded across the Midwest in droves, but for the rest of the half every time Dwight touched the ball (he nearly took a kickoff back as well) you could hear diamonds being made in the tightened sphincters of UM fans in the stands. Luckily, Michigan’s defensive line really stiffened and the offense did just enough to pull that game off. But Iowa was the type of game Michigan seemed to blow every year, and after that escape you could see the excitement really start to build around this squad.
MSU came next and, got, well…
Minnesota was steamrolled the following week, and then came the huge showdown at #2 Penn State. The Nittany Lions had joined the conference in 1992, went undefeated in 1994, and began 1997 as the #1 team in the country. They entered the game undefeated as well, and while the Fightin’ Paternos hadn’t looked dominant all year, it was still a team with a number of NFL picks (though they all had disappointing careers to varying degrees), including the #1 and #2 selections in 2000 (Courtney Brown and LaVar Arrington) and the #5 in 1998 (Curtis Enis).
Michigan absolutely demolished them, to a degree that was, honestly, shocking given the opponent and the fact the game was at Beaver Stadium. Michigan led 24-0 at halftime, 34-0 heading into the 4th, and it probably wasn’t even that close. To say fans were excited after the win would be a bit of an understatement. With that win, Michigan ascended to #1 in the country, and followed it up with another quality win at Wisconsin, who were without 1999 Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne due to injury, though Michigan had consistently stymied Dayne during his collegiate years.
With all the preliminaries out of the way, #4 OSU came to the Big House looking to return the favor as spoiler of Michigan’s perfect season, themselves riding high after having only lost to then-#1 PSU, and featuring one of the best WRs in college football in David “proto-HGH enthusiast” Boston. The war of words started early between him and Woodson, culminating in one of those on-field fights where guys threw hands but nobody was ejected because people understood that human beings can get some aggression out on a football field without worrying how it would affect the children!
Oh yeah, and Woodson also cemented his Heisman Trophy season with an iconic return.
It also led to one of my favorite Sports Illustrated covers ever.
With that win, it was on to Pasadena and the Washington State Cougars, which is where I start doling out the Bests and the Worsts.
Best: Past With a Blast
I'll start off by saying that this was one of the weirdest f*cking Michigan games to watch, especially 17-odd years later.* I’ll obviously get into particular elements in greater detail, but watching these older games, you are struck with just how much the college game has evolved even in the last 10-15 years. Now, I know that is a pretty obvious statement, so let me explain.
Take, for example, the speed of the game. Initially I thought everyone was just slow because they were less athletic, that college football was still trying to escape the vortex of “traditional” football gameplans that were closer to attrition than strategy, like two warring armies meeting in the middle of a field and the side with more functioning limbs left at the end was the victor. But that isn’t precisely true, at least in this game; both Michigan and Washington State had gamechangers on both sides of the field, and on a per-play basis there didn’t seem to be some massive athleticism gap (the players did seem smaller than today’s athletes, though at least part could be due to optical differences from weird camera angles and the style of uniforms).
But the difference between this championship game and the one we just saw between Oregon and OSU was how deliberate everyone played. The Cougars oftentimes lined up with 4+ WRs in the game, and Michigan’s base defense was typically a 4-2-5 with liberal amounts of blitzing. But at no point did WSU really push the pace, instead huddling after most plays, allowing Michigan’s defense to get in the necessary substitutions and get set. Ryan Leaf did look to the sidelines and made adjustments at various points, but after a steady diet of Oregon, Baylor, Rich Rod, and Urban these past 10 years, it’s kind of weird to watch a high-powered offense (WSU was #2 in scoring, #4 in passing) just walk up to the line.
And don’t get me started on Michigan’s offense in this game (and really all year). I kind of glossed over it in the recap, but this team ran an offense I could best describe as “don’t screw this up”, which was a little weird given how much talent the team actually had on that side of the ball. It was Mike DeBord’s first year as OC, so if you thought he was innovative in his later years you’d be even more surprised how conservative his playcalling was. Chris Howard led the team in rushing and receiving, and Jerame Tuman and Tai Streets tied for the non-backfield lead in catches and TDs at 24 and 4, respectively. Michigan ran the ball, ran it again, and then either threw a pass out to a RB or Tuman on third down. Once defenses started sucking in, maybe they’d try to beat you deep on playaction or with a bootleg (as they did twice this game). But this team had 17 scoring drives (15 TDs and 2 FGs) of 70+ yards this year, and with few exceptions you could have timed them with a sundial. Yes, Griese set passing records in terms of attempts and completions this year, but with a YPA of 7.4 and a 14:5 TD/INT ratio, it’s safe to assume those weren’t directed very far downfield. In other words, this was a Cialis commercial for the blue beards who grew up praising “3 yards and a cloud of dust”.
And Michigan’s defense, as it had done all year, just ground WSU down throughout the game. I’ll get to it in a bit more detail below, but I thought this was one of the finest defensive lines Michigan has fielded in recent history; not the most talented, but just a bunch of guys who complemented each other perfectly. Couple that with an incredibly speedy LB core (including Dhani Jones and Ian Gold) and that terrifyingly-good secondary, and it was a surreal game to watch given just how fast college football has become.
* Oh, and on a 6-inch phone screen with super-grainy "ripped-from-VHS-to-Youtube" quality, on the 2/3 trains during my commute both to and from work, with a notepad in my hand while a guy with a pet rat hanging out in his jacket is looking at me with an expression that loosely translates to "what's up with THIS weirdo" as I furiously scribbled into said notebook about an AOL commercial (oh yeah, we'll get there).
Worst: The Luck of the Wolverines
It’s always hard to tell looking back how much of it was cosmic forces and how much of it was good defense and the inherent vagaries of the sport, but UM was very lucky they didn’t fall behind WSU early on in this game. This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who watched Carr’s teams throughout the years, but all-everything Michael Black + 4+ WRs wasn’t an equation he was good at solving. Though WSU only scored 7 points in the first half, it could have been much worse had Woodson not had a nice pick of Leaf in the endzone to halt a drive, and then Leaf miss another wide-open TD by inches. WSU WRs also suffered from a number of drops early on, and there were a number of plays where multiple WSU guys where open deep in the middle of the field as the Michigan secondary lost track of them. In fact, I think one of the biggest breaks in the game was Black going off the field late in the first half with a thigh injury, as he never really returned (he had one carry I believe in the 3rd quarter before shutting it down) and WSU’s offense definitely took a step back with Gilmore as the lead back.
And on offense, Griese looked very frazzled to start, throwing a pick and generally looking out of sorts, while the playcalling was basically run, run, don’t turn it over, punt. Michigan scored on a beautiful pass 53-yard pass to Tai Street off playaction, but otherwise that first half was one that could have gotten away from Michigan pretty quickly, and you could sense they knew they had dodged a bullet late in the half and into the second as the team calmed down and started to impose its will on both sides of the ball.
Best: Easily Football-Offended Lloyd Carr
To say that Carr was unhappy with the offense Mike Price was running, at least based on the numerous snarls and dismissive looks ABC cut to on the sidelines, would be an understatement. We all know how Carr had a very specific view of how football should be played and bristled at the notion of deviating significantly from that, but watching Carr try to process the idea WSU would go 5-wide and no backs and reflexively recoil was mesmerizing. I don’t know how to describe it beyond the physical manifestation of every person online who says “the spread won’t work in the Big 10!”, plastered on the head of one of the most successful coaches in college football history.
Now, Lloyd Carr would never be described as having a particularly warm demeanor on the sidelines, whether it be during handshakes with other coaches or answering dumb questions from sideline reporters, so on one hand it shouldn’t be surprising he seemed bothered by it all. And this isn’t a judgment call on him; sure, in 2015 you see an immense amount of offensive nuance, especially in the passing game, but in 1997 nobody was really pushing the pace of the game consistently, especially throwing the ball. Sure, you had your BYU’s and Florida’s finding success through the air throughout the years, but only second-tier teams like Kentucky and Purdue were beginning to exploit speed mismatches in addition to using 4+ receiver formations.
I remember watching this game and being amazed WSU had a 1,000 yard rusher AND Ryan Freaking Leaf on the same team, but it definitely seemed like an outlier situation and not the direction offenses were going. The conventional wisdom was you won with talent and execution. Hell, Nebraska went undefeated this year with a QB barely completing 50% of his passes for a 5:4 TD:INT ratio because they averaged 5.5 rushing TDs A GAME! And while he’d never say it publicly, I’m sure the word “gimmick” popped quite a few times in the video sessions leading up to this game. Carr’s view of acceptable offenses expanded somewhat as his career unfolded, but this was definitely one that seemed to take Carr back a bit.
Worst: And Easily Offensive-Playcalling-Offended BronxBlue
I’m going to provide a list of notable offensive players on UM’s roster in 1997.
- Jeff Backus
- Steve Hutchinson
- Jon Jansen
- Brian Griese
- Chris Howard
- Anthony Thomas
- Tai Streets
- Jerame Tuman
- Aaron Shea
- Charles Woodson
- Tom Brady**
Now, I know all those guys weren’t THOSE GUYS at the same time in 1997, but one of the hallmarks of Carr’s offenses was playing sound, low-variability football whenever possible. When the stakes got higher or the team was trailing, he would oftentimes loosen the reigns a bit, resulting in games like New Math and his final game. But despite oftentimes having an overwhelming talent advantage, the offenses seemed pathologically incapable of putting it on the opponent’s face except in rare circumstances. Hell, look at the 2000 Michigan roster and then remember that that team put up 20 points to 6-6 UCLA, 14 on 5-6 MSU, and a last-second 13 against 9-4 Wiscy. Yes, they scored 51 in a losing effort to NW, but…
So yeah, watching this game I was reminded how infuriating it was to follow this team at times. While Michigan’s defenses were typically some of the best in the country, the offenses found ever-more-stupefying ways to waste elite talent, or at the very least not beat the doors off of non-baby seals most years. On both of Michigan’s long TD passes, it was because WSU’s suspect corners couldn’t keep up with Michigan’s WRs. It was clear to me, to the people watching at home and stands, to Bob and Keith in the booth, that Michigan could throw against WSU, and yet it was only when the Cougars took a 13-7 lead in the second half did Michigan start to loosen up a bit on offense. And once they did, they went from a team that couldn’t move the ball for a half to one that converted 9/11 3rd-downs in the 2nd half and racked up close to 250 yards.
I guess my other pet peeve that came up during this game was the Thomas Edison-level telegraphing the offense did when they inserted certain players into the game, such as Woodson on offense (Calvin Bell in 2001 was the platonic ideal of this behavior). Because Charles Woodson was an amazing football player, Carr wasn’t afraid to let him touch the ball a couple of times a game on offense, usually on end-arounds, reverses, or deep balls. The problem lied in that when Woodson walked onto the field, it was rarely to do anything else but be the A1 focus of the play. Not as a decoy, a blocker, anything other than the guy who was going to get the ball unless you triple-covered him. As the season rolled on, defenses figured out that the guy killing them on defense was pretty good, and that when he walked out to catch a ball you might as well send two guys his way. In this game, Woodson was on the field for something like 5 plays, resulting in 2 runs, 1 catch, one under-thrown bomb, and one sorta-in-his-vicinity incompletion.
Again, I don’t want to crap too much on a guy who won a NC, but watching this janky offense in 1997 after having just lived through the Hoke era was jarring in how little had changed.
** Yeah, yeah, he was a freshman. I know.
Best: Charles MF Woodson
I don’t need to tell you that Charles Woodson had swagger coming out of his ears. Dude was the first primary-defensive player to win the Heisman, absolutely shut down halves of the field, and just was magical to watch. You’d hear people talk up the merits of guys like Dre Bly, Champ Bailey, and Shawn Springs, and yet nobody could deny how dominant Woodson was as a defensive player. He was fast enough to keep up with any WR, yet big enough to help on the run and serve as a devastating situational pass rusher. Heck, he hit Leaf a couple times in this game, including one on a delayed blitz that nearly led to a pick. He carried himself like a star but backed it up at every occasion. When you watched him you saw a guy who was evolutionarily “better” than most of the guys on the field, and you could take 1997 Charles Woodson and drop him in 2015 and he’d still be one of the best corners in the game. Just a dominant player.
Best: The Rest of the Defense
Obviously Woodson is the name everyone remembers from that unit, plus the record-setting PPG allowed (6.18 before the bowl), but that entire defense was chock full of brilliance. Marcus Ray was one of the better safeties in Michigan history, and on most other teams James Whitley would have been a #1 DB. And while he did seem to have trouble at times in coverage, Tommy Hendricks tackled with a vengeance usually reserved for fathers looking for lost daughters in movies. In particular, there was one tackle on a WSU WR that you seemed to wake up both sides of the field.
The LBs were headlined by Sam Sword, Dhani Jones, and Ian Gold, the latter two having pretty good pro careers in addition to being great college players. Gold and Jones were the type of sideline-to-sideline guys who could play in 2015 without much issue, and Sword currently sits #3 in career tackles at UM. All three gave Michigan immense flexibility in how they ran their defense, highlighted by the fact Lloyd Carr and Jim Herrmann were willing to roll out a 4-2-5 in this game without batting an eye.
I mentioned this earlier, but the defensive line really was one of the best you’d see. Rob Renes was a Sporting News AA at nose tackle as a senior, Josh Williams was stout against the run, and both Glenn Steele and James Hall could just squeeze the air out of a pocket. Again, it wasn’t full of stars (though everyone save Renes has decent NFL careers), but they might as well have added a “Right to Rush 4” patch on their jerseys because they absolutely disrupted offensive gameplans. When Ryan Leaf really struggled in this game, it was when he was under intense pressure from 4-5 guys, and a major reason he never really got on track was because he was always picking Wolverines out of his teeth.
You know how I just gushed over this defense? Well, to prove that nobody’s perfect, it also gave up a 99-yard TD drive in the 3rd quarter that was just one big WTF. Leaf fumbled the snap on first down, yet WSU recovered. On the next play, he threw a kinda-duck for a first down where the aforementioned Hendricks just smacked the WR moments after the ball got to him. From that point on, it was Michigan jumping offsides, letting WRs get between coverages, and whiffing on a reverse that you could see coming as soon as the ball was snapped. Overall I thought the defense looked pretty good in the second half, but for that one drive it was ugly.
Worst: Concussions? Nah!
This being 1997, you saw (a) a bunch of really stiff shots on WRs and QBs that would absolutely have been flagged in the game today, and (b) lots of homespun references to slobberknockers and bell-ringing that, yeah, feels kinda icky given what we now know about concussions. In particular, Glenn Steele absolutely obliterated Ryan Leaf on one play, yet nobody seemed particularly worried about Leaf’s health or current capacity to tie his shoes. I’m not saying Ryan Leaf’s subsequent life struggles are due to anything that happened in this game, but seeing how hard some of these guys were hitting him, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out at least some of his issues trace back to the beatings he took on the field. It was just weird to see some of these borderline-dangerous hits on both sides get glossed over.
Best: Chris Howard
He’ll never be remembered as a particularly great back at UM, but Chris Howard was the perfect player for Lloyd Carr’s offense. For large swaths of this game, it was Howard busting out first-down runs with Cougars bearing down, or turning simple swing passes into big gains. As I noted earlier he led the team in both rushing and receiving on the year, and in this game he rushed for 70 yards and added another 13 on two catches, including a nifty pickup on 3rd down in the first half that helped Michigan get back some field position. He was also a pretty solid blocker as far as I could tell, picking up blitzes and helping to give Griese some time on a couple of big throws in the 4th quarter.
Worst: Bad Anthony Thomas
I’m honestly not sure how widespread this sentiment was in 1997, but Anthony Thomas was one of the most infuriating backs for me to watch early on in his career. He had a tantalizing amount of talent; just a brute who could outrun you as well as (seemingly) run you over. And yet he had some missing trait, some fatal flaw that seemed to hold him back. Much like Derrick Green now, Thomas was a load who somehow still went down at first contact. In this game, he had one nice run for something like 10 yards and then 6 more rushes that went for 0-2 yards. Runs where a LB would clip his legs and he’d go down in a heap. I’m not sure if it was his running style (he was pretty upright), balance issues, lower-body strength, Michigan RB Disliking Gods, or what, but it really wasn’t until his senior year in 2000 when he put it all together, at which point he absolutely demolished guys and was, briefly, a star in the NFL. Chris Perry followed a similar trajectory while he in A2, and so if you are one of those people bothered by Green’s inability to be the Mooseback he seemed destined for a couple years ago, Thomas looms out there as the potential upside to a guy Figuring It Out. But yeah, watching this game brought back some bad memories for me.
Worst: Come On Man
At one point in the first half of this game, Lloyd Carr punted from the WSU 38. The resulting kick netted him 15 yards. That is all.
Best: No 1997 News Cycle
So Bob Griese, father of Brian Griese, and Keith Jackson, WSU alum and former Cougars radio announcer, were calling the Rose Bowl. In 1997, this was noted in a couple reports leading up to the game but that was it. In 2015, I can’t imagine how many talking heads would have chimed in about the potential “conflicts of interest” involved in two grown men calling a game in which they might have very minor rooting interests. Remember Larry Fitzgerald’s semi-biased coverage of his son in a pretty obscure publication leading up to the Super Bowl some years ago, and how big a deal that became relative to its importance? If one of Kirk Herbstreit’s sons ever winds up playing for an NC and he’s on the call, I fully expect Twitter to just melt down under the deluge of complaints.
In this game, Jackson made one quip to Griese about him not knowing Brian could throw the ball that far on a deep completion to (I believe) Street, but otherwise they acted like two professionals, capable of calling a game objectively despite rooting interests in certain outcomes. It was refreshing.
Best: Quick Hits
Here are a couple of quick points that don’t need their own section.
- This was the internet in 1997. You went to AOL and entered a keyword to search because the idea of dedicated URLs was still pretty “new”. I was amazed Prodigy hadn’t gotten the business first.
- Ryan Leaf was terrifying in college. I know he was a colossal bust in the pros, but he had a cannon of an arm, was reasonably accurate for the time, and was deceptively fast for a guy his size. It’s crazy in retrospect, but he looked like like a worthy challenger to Peyton Manning as the #1 overall draft selection, and even in this game he played with a fearlessness and toughness that really helped keep WSU in the game against a more talented UM squad.
- Apparently both of these teams were some of the most-penalized teams in the country that season. It amazes me that any Lloyd Carr team would play that cavalierly, but I guess it was a different era in more ways than one.
- Russell Athletics were the official jersey sponsor of Washington State. I can only imagine that they bought their warm-ups from Eastbay.
Worst: The Pass Interference that Wasn’t Called
If you hear people complaining about this game, what they usually argue about is the weird clock management at the end of the game wherein the clock ran out as WSU spiked the ball with 2 second left on the clock. What tends to come up less often is the absolutely terrible offensive PI that allowed the Cougars to even get to midfield. It was third down, under 30 seconds to go in the game, and WSU is deep in their own territory. Ryan Leaf drops back to pass, scrambles a bit, and then just heaves the ball downfield. Look at the screenshot above, and understand that as the ball started to descend it was coming up short. Woodson slowed down to pick it off, and Taylor just shoved him out of the way, in front of at least 1 official, and pulled it in. Jackson thought it was a pick, and then both him and Griese vocally complained that it was obvious offensive PI. It was insanity when it happened, and on review is even more amazing that it wasn’t called or that Woodson didn’t absolutely lose his mind.
Had Michigan lost this game, that would have gone down as one of the worst calls in Michigan history. As it is, it is just an amazingly incompetent one.
Worst: Hucking Fornhuskers
We all know what happened following this game. Nebraska plastered Peyton Manning’s Tennessee Volunteers in the Orange Bowl the next day, one of the many arrows in the “Peyton Manning couldn’t win the big one” quiver that people had against him for most of his early career. Coupled with Tom Osborne’s retirement, the Cornhuskers somehow leapfrogged Michigan to split the national title, winning the Coach’s Poll in what felt like a retirement gift to Osborne. Discussion of the Flea Kicker against Mizzou is treated as sour grapes for some reason, but let it be said that Nebraska was a very good team that chewed people up on the ground but was a pretty terrible team throwing the ball. It would have been a great game to see, and the controversy led to the creation of the BCS championship game.
So I hope you enjoyed this diary. If you have a game you’d like to see me review, by all means post it below.
This post was initially designed to be a "so far" diary because it was written right around the time the initial Harbaugh offer was made. Then the holidays happened, the narrative fluctuated a bit at the fringes but didn't change much, and now we basically have confirmation that It's Happening! So some of this might sound a bit more reserved than intended, but I tried to update it where I could. I am sure much more will be written, perhaps by me, as it relates to Harbaugh in the coming weeks. Still, I figured I have more than enough content to surround animated gifs and references to professional wrestling, late-90's movies, and funny dog pictures. So enjoy. Also, Harbaugh!
Best: Big Boy Pants
The absolute biggest concern I had coming into this coaching search was watching Michigan's athletic department flub, flounder, and fart its way through the process like it did in 2007 and 2011. In 2007 it was Bill Martin floating around on a boat, seemingly caught off guard by Lloyd Carr's decision to retire despite Carr saying he wanted to in 2006 and having to be convinced to give it one more go by both Martin and President Coleman. This of course led to Les Miles being asked about taking over for Michigan while preparing to play for the national championship, which looked pretty bad when it happened and looks even worse now given how disorganized the search turned out to be behind the scenes. At the time, I think most people figured it was just Herbstreit reporting rumors prematurely, and when Michigan wound up with Rich Rodriguez it felt like an irrelevant misstep at worst.
Then in 2011, with RR gone after a desultory bowl loss to the Fightin' Mullens (until this season probably his 3rd or 4th most-impressive victory in his career), we all expected Dave Brandon to, I don't know, not be an idiot and actually perform a legitimate coaching search for a viable replacement. It isn't worth rehashing here for the same reason I don't let the 1 train's doors slam shut on my fingers, plus there are so many rumors and half-truths (Harbaugh said yes, Brandon scared him away! Brady Hoke was Michigan's #1 choice after Harbaugh! My gawd King, is that Kirk "Puntasaurus" Ferentz's music!) that is is hard to ascertain fact from fiction. What we do know is that Michigan wound up with a guy with basically a .500 record who coached like one, save for a glue factory of horseshoes in his ass during the 2011 season.
Now, there have been a couple of themes throughout the past two coaching searches: a dogged preference for "Michigan Men" who can placate a calcifying segment of the fanbase that maybe doesn't think football stopped innovating in 1997 but absolutely thinks those changes don’t apply to Michigan, "Fort Schembechler " having so much palace intrigue and agenda-driven leaks that nobody had control of the narrative, and displaying some of the worst timing this side of a 2014 UM 2-minute drill. But probably the biggest theme over these past 2 coaching changes, and really of the last decade or so, is the second-rate nature of it all. For a university so renowned for its educational and research accomplishments, for proclaiming itself a "leader and best" in so many fields and backing it up, and for having one of the most storied athletic programs in college sports history, its search for a head man seemed to lack much in the way of foresight, professional execution, or, frankly, prestige. It isn't uncommon for teams to "settle" on a second or third option, but usually after a strong play for their first choice. With Michigan's most recent coaching transitions, though, it seemed like they thought "This is Michigan" was enough.
That's why this search, even with its extended googly-eyes session with Harbaugh, was so refreshing; it finally felt like the Powers That Be were treating this like a big deal and actually acted accordingly. While the exact terms might still be a bit in flux, $49M over 6 years represents the type of offer a school like Michigan should be making for the man who will spearhead its multi-million dollar football team. No pussyfooting around, not "preliminary offer" to get negotiations started. Hackett and co. looked at the landscape, identified Harbaugh as the top candidate, and made it rain.
For all of Dave Brandon's odes to marketing buzzwords and bottom-line business acumen, and Brady Hoke's passion for "Big Boy" football, they never seemed to willing or able to translate those words into results. It was Hackett, for what feels like the first time in an eternity, who actually acted like an executive, made a plan, and followed through on it efficiently and effectively. Even if by some insane confluence of events Michigan doesn't get Harbaugh, it won't be for lack of effort or resources; it'll be because Jim Harbaugh doesn't want to coach at Michigan in 2015. It'll be because he wants to remain an NFL coach, because he has "unfinished business", because billionaire private owners will pay him way more than a public state institution should ever, whatever. And Michigan will move on, not with a sense of desperation or befuddlement that the Block M and The Victors didn't seal the deal, but with some purpose. That's all I think most people want to see out of the AD, and though the jury's still out on Hackett being a long-term solution, there's a sense of confidence and competency displayed thus far that puts the similar efforts of Brandon and Martin to shame.
If you want to read my thoughts on the idea of Harbaugh coaching, go back and check out my OSU recap. Not a lot has changed, save that I am a bit more optimistic now that he's coming to Michigan with intentions on sticking around for a bit, with the siren song of the NFL less appealing than I first thought. I mean, there are options out there for him if he wanted to stick around in the pros (Jets and Chicago are big-market teams, while the Raiders are at least nearby), yet he's shown no real interest in doing so. This is obviously a great hire for Michigan, and it feels like, for once, a confluence of events has led to everyone involved finding each other as the best option. Given what has happened the past decade or so, that feeling of contentment shouldn't be discounted. Plus, it looks like he is going to breathe some fresh air into the program by bringing in people he's familiar with, including those with (Wheatley) and without (Durkin) connections to the university. That can only help clear out some of the lingering staleness of the recent past, and any concerns about lost "institutional memory" are pretty trivial given how dysfunctional this program has been with the stalwarts in place.
I will be a bit of a wet blanket on two fronts, though, as it relates to the hire. First, in the short term (i.e. the 2015 season), I'm not expecting an amazing turnaround, at least against the good-to-elite programs on the schedule. Michigan is going to play 3 Power-5 quality outfits in the OOC (BYU is an independent but would be in the upper-half of the B1G if they joined tomorrow), including opening at Utah. The Utes might be going through a coaching transition (they are already down a couple coordinators), but that's still a very good defensive team that should be competitive in the PAC-12 next year. They do get MSU and OSU at home, but good lawd is OSU terrifying offensively and MSU should be pretty solid offensively with Cook back in the mix to complement that stout defense. I think MSU's fall from elite to very good will continue, but this isn't the MSU-UM rivalry Harbaugh probably remembers (3-1 during his four years, including wins of 27-6, 31-0(!!), and 42-0(!!!)), and all the good vibes and memes aren't going to make the WRs any faster, the QB any more experienced, and the cornerbacks any better at sticking with receivers. Plus, Michigan is looking down the barrel of trips to PSU, Maryland, and Minnesota, so it isn't going to be the smoothest of transitions back to the college game for the new coach. I'm not predicting another 5-7 campaign, and there is A LOT that will change between now and early September, but it is going to be a multi-year process for Michigan to get back to being the "Michigan" Harbaugh helped create, and barring Harbaugh pooping golden horses with a million lucky golden horseshoes, I don't expect a repeat of Hoke's first year record-wise for Jim.
The second, slightly more far-reaching concern...okay, not "concern", but inevitable annoyance is going to be that this will likely not be Harbaugh's last dance with the NFL, which means I'd be surprised if he completes the full term of his current contract before leaving again for the NFL. As others have noted, this isn't a guy going back to college because he stumbled in the NFL, and there are always going to be doors open for him to return provided he is successful at Michigan. I have little doubt that he won't, which means in 3-4 years there are going to be legitimate murmurs about Harbaugh making a return to the NFL, hopefully fueled by multiple 10+ win Michigan seasons and a return to the upper-echelon of college football. You look at other successful programs and nobody is knocking down the door for Saban, Meyer, Fisher, Dantonio, etc., so at least they have one less distraction to deal with each offseason. I suspect virtually all Michigan fans will accept that bargain, but it is an ongoing din that will only get louder the better Harbaugh does at UM. My hope is that if/when he does move on, the program will be back to its normally stable position so that the next guy will have an easy transition and, heck, there might actually be a legitimate coaching tree by then. So in summation, this is totally awesome you guys!
Best: Stability + Desirability = Awesomeability
With news that D.J. Durkin was waiting on Harbaugh to go to Michigan before joining him as defensive coordinator, plus scattered reports of Swag Mattison sticking around at least one more year, Michigan is enjoying one of those rare occurrences (at least around these parts) of optimism and stability that are usually a hallmark of successful programs. Durkin has basically been sitting on the DC position at Texas A&M for a week, yet apparently wants to get the band back together with Harbaugh and should be a welcome addition. And yes, being a DC under a defensive coach like Muschamp brings with it the usual questions of how much influence he had at Florida, but this is still a guy with the trajectory of a top-notch assistant who'll be a head coach sooner rather than later.
With Mattison possibly returning, that should help stabilize recruiting a bit in the vacuum between now and Harbaugh getting on the road, and should help reaffirm a couple of wavering guys, to say nothing of the boost the trips will have once Harbaugh gets going. This will be a small class, but with a crack recruiter in a position of some authority, that will only help the transition. Again, it's a long way to even NSD, and most of the staff remains in limbo, but Michigan should enjoy the best of both worlds with this coaching change.
It isn't news to anyone on MGoBlog that the internet can be both your best friend and worst enemy when it comes, well, pretty much anything, but especially when something as "newsy" and ripe for misdirection and hearsay as a coaching search. For every legitimate insider report or guy who actually knows a guy, you'll read a dozen random Twitter handles with 10k tweets and 25 followers, and pages of forums posts fueled by someone's brother's girlfriend's sorority sister's dad's second cousin's landscaper's adopted uncle's burned-out podiatrist's receptionist's albino twin who ran into a junior associate in the athletic department at Meijer who was buying two 12-packs of Dr. Pepper (which we all know is Jim Harbaugh's 3rd favorite drink after Earl Grey tea and the tears of MSU fans OMGOMGOMG! It's Happening!), proclaiming to know what the future holds both in terms of the front-runner as well as the internal politics, backup plans, and related scuttlebutt that drives web traffic in the modern era well after the actual thing you should care about has been resolved. Obviously you can figure out who is right and who is wrong once you have some perspective, but the internet is kinda the wild wild west when it comes to rumors, and those first couple of weeks are just chock full of idiots wanting some attention.
And to make matters worse, social media and the clear NFL/CFB divide in terms of biases creates a whole new class of semi-informed, semi-credible pundits with the lowest barrier to entry probably since you could literally stand in the middle of a town square and yell whatever you wanted at people as they passed by.
On one hand, the ubiquity of the internet lets information be relatively "free" not only in terms of who possesses it but who can disseminate it quickly; you don't need to be a friend of Ed Werder, Jay Galzer, or Chris Broussard to be given a platform to be heard; a Twitter account and $10/mo. for a "premium" account is more than enough to tell the world what you know about a hot topic, sometimes well before more established voices catch wind of it. And that, to some, is incredibly valuable information that needs to be made available as soon as possible. And while I'm sure some print journalists still yearn for their own "Deep Throat" (I'll wait...) with an established paper trail of sorts, it's far more likely that the "first" source to report something will be some random guy, because random people have little to lose if they are wrong and lots to gain, even temporarily, if they are right.
But on the other hand, what it also creates is just wave after wave of bullshit to sift through for these few nuggets of actual wisdom. I joke about the circuitous route some rumors go through, but read some Reddit or 24/7 threads and it's just burner accounts from guys at airports, janitors on night shifts, and gym buddies telling you they heard from some "big money donor" or a "buddy" whose family knows someone that something big is going down, that some assistant is booking tickets to an airfield, that rooms are being repainted and new placards being designed, and all of a sudden you've got people freaking out or celebrating, while reporters and more trusted sources of information are left scrambling to verify while sifting through all the copy-cats and trolls. It's draining to watch as an observer, and I don't even need to give a crap. And along the way, people get burned enough that lines in the sand are drawn and opinions calcify, creating a certain level of acrimony and zealotry throughout the process that creates the perfect feedback loop, where anyone who says what you want to hear is credible and anyone else is lying, an idiot, or a troll.
This race for "scoops" also creates the shit-throwers like Gregg Henson and Football Scoop who basically "report" everything they can think of in the hope that enough of it is right that people forget everything else they make up. I mean, technically they are true, but Paul the Octopus also had a nice streak going but I don't remember him trying to drive traffic to his blog. And in virtually all cases, these same guys tried to inflate their numbers by claiming the most obvious things as "news" (Brandon to be fired! Michigan is looking at Harbaugh! Lots of money is involved!). I'm sure these guys had some "sources" as they were; you sniff around enough and someone will talk. But now every time one of these guys fires off some harebrained "insider scoop" about a team, they'll have that whiff of undeserved credibility.
I get that it doesn't really matter in the end; I doubt Jim Harbaugh even knows this exists, let along how many times it's been posted across the internet. But I get why lots of fans don't obsessively follow this stuff, those who will probably see an interview on ESPN or read an article on Yahoo! about Harbaugh coming to Michigan and say "that's nice" and forget about it until the fall. The end result never changes, and at least they didn't spend weeks getting worked up about an anonymous purchase order for Dockers in size "Awesome!" being found in the Ann Arbor dump.
Worst: No F*cking way League
So yeah, I'm bitching about all of the dubious stories coming out of the internet's nether-region, but most of them all pointed toward a single reality: Jim Harbaugh is going to be the next coach of Michigan football. Sure, some tales were painted of him torn between another run in the pros and returning to the college game, and that certain teams might also be in play, but the vast majority of the rumors, especially amongst those most connected and accountable, were positive on Michigan. Well, except one group...
With the NFL guys, you are dealing with people who basically all default to the NFL PR view, but with the critical distinction that some are willing to at least entertain the possibility of some other reality also being possible. With the Schefter type, they live and breathed The Shield for so long that it takes them a couple of weeks to cut through the fog, but at least they are at least willing to reexamine their sources and accept the alternative reality. It's infuriating because they've bought into the arrogant argument that coaching in the NFL is a one-way street until the League dismisses you, but given the levels of delusion we've seen from people in charge these past couple of years it's not surprising how potent that kool-aid can be.
Then you've got guys like Tim Kawakami and Greg Gabriel who, for lack of a better word, are just ignorant about anything outside of the worldview they've crafted over decades of sitting in media rooms talking to the same 10-15 people and passing off recycled dribble as interesting and thoughtful commentary. For them, questioning the NFL isn't even possible because it seemingly violates some hard-coded rule in their own lives; you don't deviate from the norm because that would be admitting failure or, worse, that the world is evolving in ways they aren't willing to accept. To a man, I suspect you'd get a similarly dismissive response if you asked them about the viability of "bloggers".
I'll admit to being biased, but beyond the money and whatever self-affirming gains you get from being at the "top" of your field, I don't see the appeal of an NFL gig anymore. You never have complete control of a team, regardless of your titles, because a billionaire owner/group can always make your life a living hell if they disagree, you have to deal with a bunch of men who make quite a bit of money (oftentimes much more than you) and don't usually like being yelled at by their boss, the level of transgressions tend to be higher and more severe in the pros versus college, and with few exceptions you are only as good as your last season. I mean, Harbaugh will be coming to UM after one of the most successful first-time runs in NFL history, and yet because Colin Kaepernick regressed and a couple LBs got hurt (Patrick Willis) or went kinda crazy (Aldon Smith), he is on the outs and the born-on-third/thought-he-hit-a-triple Jed York is leading the charge. Say what you will about meddling college presidents, but most of them are smart enough to stay out of coaching situations until their hands are forced, and with the AD acting as a firewall a coach is going to enjoy far more freedom in college than he'd have in the pros, to say nothing about recruiting and player development benefits. And in this case, Michigan is going to pay a competitive salary, one that treats Harbaugh as one of the best at his position. This is a long way of saying I don't think Harbaugh (who just got through the inevitable clown show that ends most NFL tenures) sees this as much of a demotion, and while there will still be a couple of NFL guys dying on their wrong swords of wrongness, hopefully by the time Jim Harbaugh is running spring practice a good 75-80% of the NFL reporters will admit that Michigan has a chance.
Regardless, I do think we'll see quite a few of these responses coming from that brood in the coming weeks.
Best: Puntasaurus Extinction?
Hold onto your butts, because with any coaching transition there are going to be changes. But probably none will be as necessary and welcomed as (I hope) Michigan's transition away from the dinosaur "pro" punt style that existed under Hoke. And really, it's extinction was a long time coming. It's the perfect blend of barely-there upside (slightly easier to fake out of) and huge downsides (huge yards available for returns, over-reliance on unpredictable hangtime, less flexibility to address aggressive pressure) that made it an eyesore when it was happening and looks even more insane in retrospect. It basically cost Michigan the bowl game against USC, let Utah's Clay strike the most unnecessary Heisman pose, and consistently gave up gobs of field position that, at best, put Michigan's defense in tough spots. Because of rule differences between the NFL and CFB you don't see the Shield punt formation in the pros, so I guess I'm not 100% sure that Harbaugh won't keep lugging out the tired Spread punt formation, but since he seems to have a functioning cerebral cortex I expect Michigan will go with the more effective and prevailing formation. And while that will be a good day for Michigan football, it'll be a sad day for the few remaining puntasauruses walking the earth. Maybe InGen will bring one of them back from the fossilized remains of Kirk Ferentz.
Oh...apparently I've been informed by Google that he's still alive and being paid to coach. My apology to Iowa fans.
Best: Nobody Else is Happy
There is a saying that you'll know how good/bad a guy is based on how his current fans talk about him and his departure. When a stud coach/player leaves, you'll typically read knowledgeable fans lament the loss and speak glowingly about his past accomplishments. When he's kind of a dud, everyone makes jokes and criticizes his failings. But an equally-useful gauge of a new hire's overall perception is how rival fans respond to him coming on board, and in this case it is pretty universal that, well, MSU and OSU partisans are having a bad time.
I won't link to specific threads, but go to their respective boards and you'll read a lot of "I can't wait to beat that smug look off his face" or "He's not that great anyway. Plus, it'll be years before he's good." Yes, there are rational fans who recognize that Harbaugh is a good hire, but these aren't the "hur hur you have a fat coach" stuff you heard when Hoke was hired. Harbaugh is going to piss off a lot of people and give plenty of "material" for rival fans to latch onto, but this feels like Michigan is "back", and coupled with OSU and MSU losing significant cogs on their staffs (Herman to Houston, Narduzzi to Pitt), you can see the ire ratcheting up for both fanbases that absolutely took pleasure in Michigan's recent struggles. At least with OSU, that team has been a premiere program for decades even when Michigan was at its height; this is a rivalry again, not a clear ascension. But MSU fans seem supremely upset specifically because a returning Michigan probably pushes them down a peg in the conference; they'll still be a tough out as long as Dantonio is there, but that first handshake between the two is going to extra salty, and with more and more teams starting to "figure out" MSU's defense (at least the elite offenses are; we'll get a good idea how they respond against Baylor), I get a sense that Spartan fans are seeing that door close.
Best: Did I Mention Harbaugh? Also, Finally We Can All Get Back to Our Lives!
My wife sent me this gif while I was typing this up. This pretty much sums up the last couple of weeks.
Let's get to it. I was traveling most of Sunday, so this is going up a bit late.
Worst: Tapping Out
I know I'm just a guy who writes a couple of paragraphs interspersed with animated gifs a week about Michigan football, but man was this a tiring season. The on-field play was bad enough, but then you have everything with Hoke, Brandon, player injuries, Shane Morris's concussion, Frank Clark's domestic violence situation, and everything else that turned what should have just been a bad season into a clown show. It's a testament to the coaches and players that they remained as upbeat and non-homicidal as they did, but I would love nothing more than for next season to be overwhelmingly boring. I know some people have knocked Brian for not keeping up with the UFRs and the like, but if I had to watch replays of this season intensely and try to tease out meaning going forward, I'd never leave my room or bathe.
Worst: A Very Brady Holiday Game
It's already been said, but this season epitomized the Brady Hoke experience at Michigan. The game could not have started worse, with Gardner throwing a headless turkey of a pass that was intercepted by OSU, and the Buckeyes quickly capitalized with a TD. The next drive featured two huge sacks by OSU's stud line, and it felt like the rout was on. But then Michigan held tough, scored on a couple of long drives, and would have entered the half with the lead had (sigh) they not given up an all too-familiar end-of-the-half TD run to Barrett. Still, for over a half Michigan looked like they could hang with one of the best teams in the country, seemingly playing up to the talent on the recruiting trail if not on the field. Of course, the fact "keeping up with OSU for part of a game" qualifies as a positive sign for UM is pretty damning praise. But whatever, the Game felt like a game for the second year in a row despite the trajectory of the club coming in.
But every Michigan fan has seen this movie a million times, and there's a reason Hoke has been various hot seats since midway through 2012. His teams seem capable in spurts, but against elite teams they fall apart amid a cloud of janky offenses, overwhelmed/non-adaptive defenses, and the types of mental errors and coaching mistakes that you just don't see with other top programs. Outside of one completion to Devin Funchess, Michigan's offense plugged along but never really exploded; it's a testament to their determination and heart that they scored 28 points, but they needed drives of 7, 15(!), 12, and 9 plays to do it, and none were shorter than 75 yards. On one hand, that was the most consistent offensive performance the Wolverines have shown against a team with a pulse all season, but it also highlighted how uncreative/un-explosive the team has been all year.
The defense did what it could, forcing OSU to punt 4 times, which feels like some type of record, but it also gave up nearly 500 yards and struggled to deal with yet another mobile QB, as Barrett ran for 2 TDs and threw for another before breaking his ankle. Michigan had trouble getting pressure all day, failing to record a sack and only really threatening a handful of times. OSU converted on 7 of 13 3rd downs, and... you know, it just wasn't good. On paper they played well enough, but Michigan's long drives kept OSU's offense off the field as much as Michigan's play did, and they still dropped 35 points on 9 meaningful drives, and with a chance to boot OSU off the field on 4th-and-1 down 7, Michigan gave up a nearly-untouched Ezekiel Elliott 44-yard TD run that effectively ended the game.
On one hand, it was an entertaining game for one of the few times all year, and Michigan played with the passion, cohesiveness, and efficiency great teams display against other top programs. Watching this game, it looked for long stretches like two national-caliber teams out there, trading shots in a meaningful rivalry game. And then reality set in and Michigan reverted to the team we've seen for years now, one incapable of just keeping pace, of playing the type of fundamentally-sound, "big boy" football its coaches expound upon every week and claim they see every day in practice. Michigan played like an overmatched underdog holding close, like a more historically-relevant Indiana or Illinois, and not the team a decreasingly-number of diehards claim are a "rival" to OSU.
Hoke should be and probably is gone, and I'll get to my feelings about the likely successors. These last two weeks showcase the best and worst of his tenure as a head coach, and the fact that means two semi-competitive losses is the perfect summation as to why they should be his last at UM.
Best: Why Can't They Make the Whole Season Out of OSU's Defense?
To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, if Michigan is only capable of playing this way offensively when they line up against OSU, they might as well just schedule the Buckeyes 12 times. Devin Gardner did throw the interception, and it was his fumble on a sack that OSU returned for a defensive TD following Elliott's TD run, but he also threw the ball as well as he has in weeks, completing over 2/3's of his passes for 233 yards and 2 TDs, and spread out the receptions to 9 different players, 10 if you include the throwback pass he caught from Drake Johnson on a pretty brilliant playcall that helped Michigan tie the game at 21 in the 3rd. It wasn't anywhere close to his record-breaking performance from last year, but Gardner acquitted himself well enough in his final game as a Wolverine, and it was a bit poetic that his last completion of his career was a great little throw and catch to Canteen for Michigan's last TD. Of course, the fact it was in a game Michigan wound up losing by 14 takes a bit of luster off the rose, but this is the "happy thoughts" part of this diary.
Drake Johnson had his 3rd really solid performance in 4 games, scoring 2 TDs and would have likely finished with 100 yards had he not been injured in the 3rd quarter. What he does isn't necessarily flashy and I'm not sure if he could hold up to every-down back-type carries for a season, but his one-cut-and-go style meshes well enough with the playcalling, and outside of Green in spurts I'm not sure there has been another back this year who has shown Johnson's consistency these past 4-5 games. In this game, nobody other than Gardner had more than 3 carries, and Norfleet's 10 yards were the most non-QB yards on the ground amongst Hayes, Smith, and Kerridge. Once Johnson went down, so did the rest of the rushing offense.
According to the internet I am to believe that Devin Funchess GAF this game because he caught 7 balls for over 108 yards (only the second time sigh he's done so all year), but it also felt like one of the few times this year Michigan hasn't been afraid to throw downfield a bit and challenge defensive backs. The offensive line gave up 5 sacks, but they tended to come in bunches and, overall, Gardner was able to survey the field and find open receivers reasonably well, especially when the pocket moved with him and bought him some time with his legs. If this is Funchess's last game (and barring some crazy ju-ju by the next head coach or a poor draft report, it is), at least it felt like he had some chances to make plays and fulfill a bit of the promise expected before this broken season took place.
I'd like to say this portends some hope for next year, with only Gardner and (probably) Funchess gone, but I'm not going to fall for that fool's gold again quite yet. Whoever takes over next year will find an offense capable of playing a couple of different ways, and even though a big part of me wishes we could have seen a healthy Devin Gardner is a spread-style offense behind an improving line, Morris and co., there's enough talent and ability at the QB position to make me think a repeat of 2008 ThreetSheridanDamnit isn't in the cards.
Good(?): Good Many Cooks in the Backfield
Coming into the season, one of the key questions around these parts was whether or not Michigan had anyone who could matriculate the ball forward without (a) fumbling, (b) exploding, or (c) not following that up with three carries going backwards. Transfer Ty Isaac was going to be redshirt, but after a disastrous 2013 people expected the slew of highly-rated freshmen to mature into competent rushers, especially if the offensive line made some positive strides. For most of the year, it looked like Green was figuring out how to be a semi-effective rusher in college, while Smith would do his phonebooth runs where he fell forward for a couple of yards. Nobody was going to mistake it for past efforts by Hart or Perry, but it was consistently mediocre, which counts as a "win" in my book.
Then Green went down and Smith stumbled getting the lion's share, while guys like Hayes and Norfleet provided change-of-pace but still felt like misshaped pieces in the offensive scheme. All wasn't "lost" because this is 2014 Michigan, so not having a semi-competent rushing attack is WAYYYYYYY down the list of concerns, but given the improved play by the offensive line it was a bit sad it wasn't being put to better effect. And then Drake Johnson had a good day against IU on Homecoming and we all kinda said "good for him" and figured that was it. Two weeks later he was held in check by Northwestern, but that game was played on the M00N and DeVeon Smith had his best game in a Michigan uniform. Since then, Johnson has played really well, and at some point the sample size and opponent arguments disappear and you can begin to (cautiously) get excited about him coming back next year and competing with Green, Isaac, and Smith for meaningful carries.
Johnson isn't as dynamic as Smith or Green can be, and while Isaac looked good at USC during his freshman year who knows what effect the year away from the game will be, especially if he is learning yet another offense that may or may not be similar to the ones he's been exposed to the past 2 years. I do think next year will feature a healthy dose of real Drake Johnson hype, especially if Michigan sticks with a similar blocking and running scheme, as his point-and-shoot running style works really well with zone blocking that was most effective this year. Green was probably the "feature" back this year before he went down, and Isaac should get a good number of carries as he is eased back into the game. So that means the backfield could well be a strength for the team in 2015, which would be great considering Michigan will be breaking in a new QB who, at best, has played 2 meaningful games in his college career.
Of course, there are only so many carries to go around, so I wonder if every rusher will be back next year, but that's a discussion for another day. It still remains a positive uptick for the Michigan rushing offense to put up solid efforts for the better part of the month, and credit should go to the backs and the offensive line for making that a reality.
Worst: Missing Frank Clark
I didn't want to say much last week given what transpired with Clark, but with the end of the season it is hard not to look back at the games against OSU and (in particular) Maryland and not see where his absence had a significant effect on how the defense played. Clark wasn't a top-flight DE, but he was a disruptive force on a line that has lacked punch for most of Hoke's tenure, and more importantly possessed the athleticism to string out the QB-based running plays that killed Michigan against Maryland and are the bread-and-butter of OSU's offense. I don't think he would have made a difference in the overall outcome against OSU, but I absolutely believe him not being available against Maryland cost Michigan that game. Of course, I'm not condoning what happened in that hotel room and absolutely agree with Hoke's decision to dismiss him from the team, but from a football perspective him being gone hurt a Michigan team that could have at least won 6 games.
Best: Defensive Effort
I know I seemed a bit underwhelmed about the defense's performance above, but I absolutely felt like they played as best as they could given just how scary-good OSU's offense can be. Michigan didn't force a turnover or get a gift possession after a bad punt return or fumbled snap like other OSU opponents, so they deserve credit for giving up 35 points the honest way. As noted earlier, they were without Frank Clark, and while early-season J.T. Barrett might have been susceptible to weird blitzing patterns or different alignments, by this time in the season Barrett was just another Heisman trophy-caliber QB coming off the Meyer assembly line. And OSU's offense is designed to pick away at your weaknesses, like they did against MSU, like they did for stretches against PSU, and like they've done to great effect to everyone else this season save VT. So while it is clear the corners aren't as talented as we all hoped coming into the year, and the linebackers struggled at times in coverage, and the run defense benefitted immensely from missing teams like Wisconsin and Nebraska, it was still a unit that "came to play" every week, as cliche as that is, and one a different team is probably good enough to win you 9-10 games. And with only a couple of key contributors leaving (Ryan, Beyer, Taylor, Clark), it feels like a unit that the next coach should be able to meld pretty quickly.
Meh: Flightracker 2015!
If you want a full recap of the coaching search and the key players involved, check the various diaries from alum96, Eye of the Tiger, and others, along with the front-page posts by Brian and the staff. They have fantastic takes on the candidates, and I have nothing substantive to add in terms of names.
To steal a line from Brian, I don't know man. Everyone and his mom at Michigan are calling for Jim Harbaugh; the 49ers have obliged by all but packing Jim's bags for him and called for an Uber headed to the airport. Barring a run to the Super Bowl, I don't see a world in which Harbaugh is coaching in San Francisco next year, and even if they win out I could see both sides cutting ties at their highest point. And by all accounts, he's interested in coming to Michigan, with those insider-y comments like "he feels like he might do better in college" and the usual platitudes about wanting to come back to his alma mater. So the tracks are absolutely greased for Harbaugh to ride into town and save the day.
Now, I know I speak for the minority, but I'm not in love with the prospect of Harbaugh being the next head coach. This isn't because I want to be a contrarian, or because I want to start a debate. Objectively, Harbaugh is the best option for Michigan if the goal is winning quickly and (hopefully) voluminously while apeasing the most fans. He had good success in college at Stanford, and though it was brief he absolutely showed an acumen recruiting top players to a down program. He then went to the pros and had one of the most successful runs any new coach has ever experienced, winning 36 games in 3 years and going to at least the conference final every year. He's young enough to stick around, and his ties to the University are unparalleled amongst the available options. Plus, it would be fun to finally have a coach who would absolutely call Mark Dantonio out on being an a-hole and, well, we can only dream about that first post-game handshake. And yet, there remain reasons why I really, truly wish Michigan would look somewhere else for their next coach.
First off, what I dislike about Harbaugh as a head coach is what he symbolizes. Michigan got itself into this near-decade of sub-mediocrity because it doggedly holds onto the past, pulling off their best Notre Dame "echos of the past" by talking about how good they were years ago and how they just need to get back to playing football the "Michigan Way." This mentality is obviously not shared by all Michigan fans, but there is this contingent that has been chasing ghosts since Bo left, and it has colored their worldview to such an extent that anyone who doesn't subscribe to that notion of Wolverine football is shouted down for "ignoring history" or recognize true greatness. And yes, I believe Bo was a great coach for Michigan when he was there, and he absolutely helped revive a faltering program and bring them back to national prominence. But he's also a guy who has 1 more Rose Bowl win than Mark Dantonio and the same number as John Cooper, whose teams always seemed a step below elite (save for your outlier year here or there), and whose memory exceeded his accomplishments around the time Carr left and the first "outsider" was let into his Hall. Harbaugh has such a strong connection to Bo, to an era when Michigan could just be "Michigan" and that was enough to win most games, and I don't believe it is possible for Michigan, or really any program, to go back to that. So through no fault of his own, his existence feels a bit like the "break glass to stop time" emergency release that will further keep Michigan a step behind other national powers that don't seem afraid to break with tradition and the withered alumni tree.
Now, I don't think Harbaugh would try to recreate 1980's Michigan football, but at the same time what we've seen from him in college has been schemes that wouldn't be out of place decades ago. Stanford was a run-heavy outfit with a pretty basic defense that beat you by forcing you to grind down the field; it worked because Harbaugh is a good coach and his teams were smart, heady outfits that played within their limitations. But the dirty little secret about 2009/2010 in the Pac-10 is that they were pretty terrible years for the conference. Stanford and Oregon finished #4 and #3, respectively, in 2010, but the next best team was 8-5 USC coached by Lane Kiffin, and Oregon ran Stanford off the field when they played them. In 2009 Stanford got on the national map when the upset Oregon, but that wasn't a banner year for the conference either, with Oregon winning the league at 10-3 and Pete Carroll's last USC team limping to a 9-4 finish with sanctions looming. That isn't to outright dismiss Harbaugh's accomplishments because winning at Stanford is incredibly tough and his teams were trending upward, but at least some of that success should be attributed to playing some pretty weak competition, probably even weaker than what he'd see in the B1G his first year.
What we've seen nationally is that unless you have overwhelming talent, which Michigan doesn't have, the best teams employ offensive and defensive systems that attack your weaknesses dynamically and aren't afraid to fight left-handed if it makes sense. It's how OSU turned a redshirt freshman into a record-breaking QB, or how Auburn drops 600 yards on Alabama (in a losing effort, yes), or how Rich Rodriguez is playing for the Pac-12 title in his third season at Arizona. Maybe Harbaugh learned more coaching Kapernick and having to adapt to his playing style, so this could be a false concern. But at the same time, it is reasonable to wonder if the best version of Stanford is the ceiling Michigan is looking at. That might win them a bunch of games in this conference, but it will still put them behind OSU more times than not, and nationally I'm not sure that gets Michigan any closer to being nationally relevant year-by-year.
But beyond that concern of hoping for past glories, the other key reason I'm down on Michigan going for Harbaugh is that I don't think he's coming here, or that he'd stick around all that long if he did. Like I said earlier, he's had a near-unprecedented run of success while at SF, and his name is already being thrown around for spots in NY, Cleveland, Atlanta, etc. This isn't Nick Saban finishing under .500 in his two years in Miami, or Spurrier spectacularly flaming out in Washington and running back to college and its noon tee times. Harbaugh isn't likely done with the NFL, and if he has some early success at UM that siren song is only going to get louder. You may say "that's great, it means he'll win now and set Michigan back on the national map", but I could see that being a bit of a distraction and having a negative effect on recruiting. Furthermore, and this is absolutely a personal take with no basis in provable fact, but I'm not sold Harbaugh views Michigan the way other people think he views Michigan. This was the guy who took shots at the education, at the way the program was run once he was a head coach and recruiting against them, and he's not said or done anything since then to make me believe his view of Michigan has changed demonstrably. We all laugh now at Brady Hoke for saying "This is Michigan, fergodsakes" because he failed to back up his love with results on the field, but there is something to be said for a guy who wants to stay and create a legacy at your school. Harbaugh would absolutely be positive about Michigan while he is there, but I also think he'd be looking around at other opportunities when appropriate. I'm not sure if "cold-eyed focus" and cutthroat calculus are good or bad traits, but Harbaugh has them in spades.
So I guess that's why I'd love for Michigan to look at younger options, guys who would jump at the opportunity to coach at Michigan for decades and turn it into their own instead of a guy who is sorta, kinda being pushed out for political reasons in the NFL and might land back at Michigan because it is the best option at the time. The more I see and hear about guys like Herman at OSU, Frost at Oregon, or Aranda at Wisconsin the more I'd like a younger coordinator who has "apprenticed" under a top-flight coach and who seems poised to take over a program. I know people say Michigan doesn't need to take chances on coaches, but Gus Malzahn had one season of HC experience at Arkansas St. before he took over at Auburn and turned that program around immediately, and guys like Bob Stoops and Chip Kelly got their first HC chances at programs where they flourished almost immediately. Age is just a number, and getting a guy with "head coaching experience" instead of "a clue" is what led us down the Hoke wormhole. "Michigan" does a fair bit of recruiting for you, and a young guy coming in will undoubtedly keep around the pieces from the current regime that work and won't be afraid to upset the apple cart a bit where necessary. Who knows if any of these guys will turn out to be great HCs, but taking a risk on an unknown with upside sure beats out the alternative of Miles or retreads that seems to be option B if/when Harbaugh takes a hard pass.
I commend you for reading this far, so I'll end this here. I want Michigan to win, to get back to being the type of program that deserved to be called a "Leader and Best" on the football field. And maybe Harbaugh is the perfect compliment of old-world charm and new-world winning. But what I fear is that the powers in control of the decision are going into it with blinders on, and for a school that has so many innovative elements it would be depressing to see them not explore every option out there.
Best: The End
Finally, my Saturday nights/Sundays are free! I want to thank everyone who reads and comments on these diaries, and for putting up with my rants and long-winded explanations. I've enjoyed trying to bring a bit of levity to this season, and look forward to 2015 when Shane Morris and Drake Johnson ride Harbaugh mania to the Rose Bowl!
I contemplated not even writing this edition of the diary. Next week’s game is going to have way more meaning in terms of the end of a season, of a coaching staff, maybe of an era in Michigan football. This was just one of many infuriating games played by Michigan in recent years, and distinguishing it from, say, Iowa or Nebraska last year is mostly in the eye of beholder.
Worst: Of Pigs and Lipstick
Ever since Michigan beat PSU and then started winning consecutive games for the first time this season (sigh), there was a growing contingent of Michigan fans who started to argue that if Brady Hoke finished the season “strong” (typically with a win at OSU, though a close loss in the same vein as last year might suffice), culminating in a bowl win on or before Christmas, his services should be retained as head coach for next year.
The reasoning seemed to be three-fold: (1) there was no promise that Michigan would snag a top-flight replacement for Hoke (especially if a Harbaugh wasn’t in play), so why perform a lateral move (2) knowing very little about Hackett and Schlissel except that the former is a “Brandon guy” and the latter isn’t much for sports, did it make sense to entrust them with such a major decision on a compressed timeframe, and (3) 7/8 wins (including an upset of a major rival) were seen as some progress by the team and the staff, especially given the dearth of seniors on the team, and recruiting might pick up again with some certainty about the staff returning. I might be missing some other tertiary arguments, but the gist seemed to be that unless Michigan could get a slam-dunk replacement, it didn’t make sense to go through another rebuilding with an imperfect selection.
But the core of this argument was premised on the idea that Michigan would be showing meaningful improvement, and that’s the rub with this recent upswing: the team has played, and the staff has coached, just as shoddily as it had during the losses, only that the opposition somehow found ways to play even worse. Earlier this year, Devin Funchess said that wins and losses are just a “statistic”, in a way restating the maxim that if you perform consistently and steadily improve, the wins will follow in the long term, even if in the short term you might lose a game or two due to the vagaries of life and the sport. Well, the thing is that telling the difference between “bad luck” and “poor coaching” may be somewhat subjective, but if you keep having to divine the difference that is probably telling you something about the team.
Yes, there have been meager signs (mostly on defense, but also with the offensive line) that this program was playing better, especially given the fact that Indiana has since nearly upset PSU and held tough against OSU on the road, while Northwestern upset Notre Dame and then demolished Purdue to, improbably, set up for next week’s intra-state battle with the Illini as a battle of two teams playing for their bowl-game lives. They weren’t dominating wins, but if you squinted you could see something faintly resembling progress and improvement, and maybe with a new QB and some healthy running backs next year Michigan might be on its way “back”.
But all along, this team kept displaying the same numerous flaws that absolutely, positively shouldn’t be happening 50 games into a coach’s tenure. The offense remains painfully predictable, to the point that pointing this out is equally reflexive. The defense, while certainly the stronger unit during Hoke’s tenure, continues to play at a B+ level, seemingly never figuring out how to handle anything approaching tempo or a mobile QB. Barring a Biakabutuka-esque performance against OSU, Michigan won’t have a running back break 600 yards total on the season, and for the second year in a row won’t have one even sniff 1,000 yards total. Hell, Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman are going to significantly outrush this team as a whole, and that’s after dropping 292 yards rushing on Maryland in this game. Devin Gardner went from pre-season All Big-10-ish player to a guy who’ll probably not throw for 10 TDs on the season, and one of the best runs of the year was a 52-yard run by a FB on a fake punt. Timeouts continue to be called or saved without any regard for reality, and the team long ago ran out of feet to shoot with dumb penalties, incorrect number of players on the field, and turnovers. Oh my gawd the turnovers, King.
This game had all of those failings on display live and in technicolor, so even if Michigan had somehow pulled off the win and gotten bowl eligible, there’s nothing resembling real, sustainable progress by this staff and how that has translated to the team. A couple of ugly wins and the renewed potential for the team to scratch out bowl eligibility might have spackled over these cracks slightly, but this program remains a fundamentally flawed organization with a staff that seems unable to implement an holistic philosophy, or really any set of standards, necessary to win consistently. That 11-2 season always felt like an aberration, but even moreso after watching this program devolve for the past 3 seasons. It’s been an ugly downfall, and with this loss I have to think the end is near.
Best: Keeping ‘Em Clean
Another week, another strong performance by the offensive line. As noted above, Michigan put up 292 yards against Maryland on only 45 caries, which works out to a nice 6.5 ypc. Of course, 52 of those yards came on Kerridge’s run in the first quarter, but even excising that you are still looking at 5.5 ypc. Furthermore, TFLs were held to a minimum (6 total), with only 2 sacks allowed and Gardner seemingly being given ample running lanes to escape the pocket if necessary. Gardner had his best game this season by far running the ball, averaging nearly 6 yards a carry and breaking out a couple of nice stutter-steps on Michigan’s lone TD drive. Pass blocking held up, and though Gardner’s numbers were, again, pretty abysmal, they were not due to excessive pressure or a shrinking pocket. So that’s nice, I guess.
The line is far from perfect, but it has displayed the type of gradual improvement you expect from young players getting accustomed to each other. It lacks the certifiable NFL-quality stars we saw last year with Lewan and Schofield, but everyone should be back next year and there is solid depth behind them, so the next coaching staff will have more pieces to work with than Hoke had when he took over.
What is a bit sad is that had Gardner had this level of protection last year, I’m not sure the broken shell of a man we’ve seen this year exists. He’d still make some bad decisions, but you can see him flinch and lose focus when the pocket even gets compressed slightly, and that seemingly is due in part to being under constant duress last year behind whatever that was in front of him in 2013. Al Borges seemingly did him few favors these past couple of years in terms of coaching and development, but as we’ve seen this year at Penn State, any QB working under the constant threat of helmetical annihilation is going to play poorly. It also gives me small hope that next year, Morris and the cadre of running backs will perform reasonably well when not matched up against the MSU’s of the world.
Best: Going Out With a Bang
If this was Brady Hoke’s last home game as a Michigan head coach, he at least pulled out all the stops in trying to win it. The fake punt was a great call, particularly given the fact Michigan was going for it on the previous 4th-and-1 before Smith’s false-start penalty drove them back 5 yards. This being 2014 and Michigan being what they are, they settled for a FG attempt that was then blocked but ricocheted in, but at least it was an early attempt to “manufacture” points in a game that turned out to be a slog.
I also thought Michigan’s decision to go for it on the two other 4th-down plays were the right calls, particularly the 4th-and-6 in the third quarter that might have warranted a penalty call. And I suspect that had Michigan not given up an 11-yard sack on 3rd down from Maryland’s 5 yard line, they probably would have gone for the TD at that juncture as well. At his best, Brady Hoke has always been a bit of a gambler, though he’s seemingly been less so this season. Though it didn’t turn out to matter, it was at least refreshing to see him go back to those ways in this game.
Worst: Not Every Atomic Dog Has His Day
All season it felt like Dennis Norfleet was one block, one crease away from taking a punt back for a score. So there Michigan was, having recently taken the lead on Gardner’s nifty rushing TD and forced Maryland to punt. The ball seemingly bounced harmlessly in front of Norfleet, and he seemed content to let the Terrapins down it. Then, with a little shimmy, he picked the ball up on the bounce, jetted past a couple of flat-footed defenders, and shot past the punter for a TD and some much-needed breathing room. It would be the play that broke Maryland’s back and help secure Michigan’s win.
But of course, that isn’t the fairy-tale ending to this game because this is 2014 and Michigan football has apparently done a Freaky Friday-style switch with mid-2000 MSU. No, instead Michigan gets called for a dubious block-in-the-back penalty (seriously, it was basically a one-handed semi-shove on a guy barely on the screen), and gets booted off the field on 4th down. Maryland then ties the game on the next drive and goes on to win.
Norfleet will be a senior next year and (hopefully) will have a moment to shine, but this reversal was backbreaking in more ways than one.
Worst: When There Isn’t Anything Else to Say
Man, I want to have a fresh take on Devin Gardner, but I’m not sure there is one anymore. He barely threw for 100 yards, completed a shade over 50% of his throws, threw a tipped INT, and either threw just ahead/behind his receivers a half-dozen times or hit them right in the numbers just to see the ball get dropped. It was a sad Senior Day but also a bit fitting given the year he’s had thus far. It just stuns me that this Devin Gardner’s first home game as a starter was highlighted by this sequence:
And his final game in Ann Arbor didn't feature a completion longer than 23 yards, which practically qualifies as airing it out in this offense. Let’s just move on.
Worst: Catch the Damn Ball
What started off as basically Iowa last year has become a bit of an epidemic, especially recently with Devin Funchess. There were absolutely a couple of balls that were too far ahead/behind him to be considered catchable, but for the umpteenth game this year Funchess dropped a couple of very catchable balls that could have extended drives or bailed out his QB. I won’t recount every instance because, well, I still have a shred of humanity I’m trying to hold onto and I’m not inclined to rag on college kids too much, but suffice it to say that there were balls a purported first-rounder should have caught, and coupled with the anemic play-calling (we need to stop expecting the coaches to try to exploit any size advantages they may have with Funchess because if they aren’t going to throw a f*cking jump ball over a 5’ 7” guy, it ain’t going to happen ever), it’s been the opposite of the breakout year people expected.
The rest of the WRs continue to be uninspiring, with Canteen dropping a TD and nobody getting separation against one of the many “meh” secondaries in the conference. I’m sure there will be improvement next year, but you got me stumped from where given what we’ve seen this year.
I wish I could divine something greater here, but it was another okay performance that started off great but then faltered as the game progressed. Michigan largely held Maryland in check in the first half, with a trio of FGs to show for their efforts, including one a short field following Gardner’s INT. But in the second half, C. J. Brown just kept running the ball and Michigan consistently gave up the edge, and when Michigan tried to compensate he found receivers wide open for first downs. Michigan seemed to have no counter to the most predictable playcalls in the world, and yet they were a questionable spot on a 3rd down and a busted coverage by Raymon Taylor away from keeping the game tied at the end.
Bolden and Ryan were everywhere, and even without Clark in the lineup Michigan was able to get some pressure on Brown and slow down the running game for long stretches of the first half. Maryland didn’t try to throw the ball much until late in the game, but Lewis seemed to be in decent coverage most of the night and Taylor had that one bust on a fake WR screen but nothing else that felt egregious. Lewis’s big snafu was the running-into-the-kicker penalty that led to Maryland’s game-tying TD. Now, I’m not sure if the coaches told Lewis to go for the block or he called that on his own, but the risk-reward for blocking a chip-shot FG attempt by one of the best kickers in the country seemed pretty high against, and it turned as 4-point Michigan lead into a tied game. But given all of the bad decisions this year, it’s hard for me to drag up much more bile.
It’s a solid unit with inconsistent performances, coached by knowledgeable guys who seem unable to deal with a mobile QB or anyone who doesn’t respect the sanctity of the play clock. Again, the next staff will find a lot of talent in the cupboard; hopefully they’ll get more out of it.
Worst: Rivalry Week
Being a Michigan fan means I’ll be rooting for them to beat OSU, but as a human being who watches football, I don’t really see a way this isn’t doesn’t get ugly. OSU isn’t a great team, and I think they’re much closer to the squad that struggled against PSU, Minny, and IU in recent weeks than the one that obliterated MSU a couple of weeks ago. But they absolutely have the type of offense that can carve up Michigan, and no performance this year gives me any hope that Gardner and co. will be able to recreate last year’s fireworks. It’ll be close for a bit because it’s a rivalry game, but it will be a miracle if Michigan can escape Columbus with a win.
I will say, and not that the team should or would care, but I kinda hope the seemingly-annual pre-game fight at midfield doesn’t happen this year. The last team this 5-6 squad needs is a meaningless “tough guy” stomping on the midfield logo or whatever usually sets this stuff off. I’m sure it will happen, but when you’ve only beaten OSU 3 times since Y2K, it might be time to try something new.
This is going to be a short diary, with more a focus on college football generally than Michigan football’s last two weeks of the regular season. I say this every time, but I mean it. Also, please make sure to read my comment regarding Frank Clark and what has come out in the past couple of hours.
Best: A Michigan-free Football Saturday
Virtually everyone here is a diehard Michigan fan; I kinda doubt you’d be posting and reading this blog if you weren’t. But it should come as no surprise to many that watching this version of Michigan football the past couple of years is not an overly-entertaining affair.
So I’ve come to enjoy watching football on bye weeks because I can just enjoy football for what it is, with no real rooting interest or aneurysm-inducing reactions to what’s going on during the game. I can watch Miss. St. vs. Alabama, OSU vs. Minny, or FSU vs. Miami and just enjoy watching other teams without having to be overly critical of What It Means or The Future of the guys on the sidelines. Plus, I got to see Notre Dame blow a game to Northwestern (!) and Auburn get waxed by Georgia and get a bit of revenge for that insanity last year.
Best: Seriously, Irish?
You get down with your bad self, Pat!
Nothing is more fun than seeing ND lose due to their own hubris, and a piece of me is happy to one-half of M00N get a little bit of a gift.
Worst: Smart football?
So this conference really does suck at football.
Okay, take a step back.
This conference sucks at smart football compared to the rest of the country.
Minnesota and OSU was amazing in so many ways, from the two turnovers by Jalin Marshall (one on a probable score and another on a muffed punt that set up a Minny TD), to the worst onside kick I’ve seen in a long time (the Minnesota kicker both kicked it softly AND directly at the OSU hands guy), to Mitch Leidner going 7/19 for 85 yards and 2 INTs, 36 of those yards on one completion to Maxx Williams. But at least those are football-type events; Cole Stoudt completed 3 passes to Clemson players and 3 to Georgia Tech DBs, and two of these were returned for TDs.
No, what was amazing was Jerry Kill deciding late in the 4th quarter, deep in OSU territory and on 2nd down, to kick a 34-yard-field goal while being down 10.
Obviously, you need the FG and the TD, and on 4th down I absolutely understand taking the points versus going for a TD. But he had a bit over a minute left, and while he had no timeouts (which he used to slow down OSU’s previous drive), there was little danger in at least trying to throw to the endzone once or twice. You need that TD at some point, and passing from the 17 at least gives you some options; trying to throw from the 40 (or wherever they’d be on a successful onside) with under a minute wasn’t going to be any easier. And while Minny’s kicker had missed earlier, it was a 50-yarder doinked off an upright with more than enough distance. Instead, the Gophers ran up, spiked the ball, then trotted out the FG kicker for a chipshot and then failed to recover the onside kick. It was baffling enough for the announcers to question it as it occurred, and is even more inexplicable in retrospect.
I hate picking on Kill because he is a good coach who has helped Minnesota recover from the dregs to be a decent mid-level conference program, and his medical condition is obviously quite draining and it is a testament to him that he is performing as well as he is. That said, this was a crazy end to a game that probably shouldn’t have been that close anyway.
Best: Running Back ConfUrence?
I know PSU is known as Linebacker U (yes, and for other things). But for all the crap that the conference gets for being less innovative than others, but what it does have is the most complete and impressive collection of running backs in the country, with 4 in the top 10 nationally, including the top 2 spots.
Melvin Gordon broke LaDainian Tomlinson’s FBS record for rushing yards with 408 yards on 25 carries (!), which I’m not sure I could pull off playing NCAA Football 2014 on easy mode against Southern Directional State U. And Nebraska is no slouch defensively; they were comfortably in the top-25 defenses by FEI coming into the game, and were only giving up 3.7 yards per carry. By comparison, Tomlinson put up his yardage against Texas-El Paso on 43 carries(!). Wiscy has had some great backs in its history, but Gordon seems otherworldy right now, and for once I’m happy that the weird scheduling quirks at the conference kept him off the schedule.
On the other side of the field, Abdullah struggled running the ball, especially once Wisconsin started to pull away, but any other year he’d be in the conversation for best back in the conference despite being injured the past couple of weeks. Befitting the tire fire that has been Indiana this year in conference, Tevin Coleman put up over 300 yards running the ball and still finished over 100 yards behind the day’s leader while IU lost by 22. Similarly, David Cobb has been a major force behind Minnesota’s renaissance this year, and yet I’m not sure most people realize he’s the eighth-leading rusher in the country. And you have guys like Langford at MSU and Elliott and OSU putting up really good numbers as well.Gordon and Coleman could return next year, though I wouldn’t hold me breath on either.
As a Michigan fan it is obviously distressing to see so much talent at the running back position seemingly everywhere else except in Ann Arbor. I don’t know much about Fred Jackson and his coaching style, but it is clear that there is talent in the region and Michigan is either (a) whiffing horribly, or (b) failing to develop it into competent on-field performers. Still, it’s been fun watching these guys play so well, and I’m going to try to enjoy it because I’m not sure we’ll see this concentration of talent anytime soon.
Worst: M.C. SECher
Michigan was never going to sniff the college playoff this year, and as soon as Oregon trounced MSU and OSU got blitzed by VT nobody in the conference stood much of a change of competing for a spot; I guess OSU has a slight chance if they win out and a bunch of teams ahead of them lose, but that seems unlikely. Not only is my team not involved in this first year, but the two teams that are my mortal enemies are most-likely out, so hate-watching isn’t on the table either. So instead, I’ve been watching the past couple of weeks play out nationally with about as much detachment as one person can have for the sport.
So this weekend #4 Alabama beat #1 Mississippi State at home, #15 Georgia blitzed #9 Auburn at home by 27, #24 Texas A&M lost at home to a Mizzou team that lost to Indiana at home and probably won’t finish the year with a win against a ranked team, and #17 LSU was shut out by 5-5 Arkansas a week after nearly upsetting now-#1 Alabama. This came a week after A&M upset Auburn on the road.
Now, on the surface these results should be exciting; highly-ranked teams playing each other in important games are what college football is supposed to be all about. Well, that and money. Lots and lots of money. Oh yeah, and maybe education.
But as has been the case all year, it feels like a shell game is going on in the SEC and the media (read: ESPN) is all too happy to keep it going for the watching public. This year has seen an unprecedented number of SEC teams ranked, and in a down year for college football some of the best teams do reside in the Southeast. But these rankings have become more and more dubious as the year has gone on and we realize that teams like LSU, Auburn, and A&M aren’t sleeping giants but instead deeply-flawed outfits with inconsistent performances.
The problem is that because the perception remains that the SEC is the dominant football conference by leaps and bounds, you have this weird feedback loop wherein everyone has “good” wins and “good” losses because everyone is ranked, even though objectively they probably shouldn’t be. I know the fashionable term is SEC bias, but it isn’t even that; it’s just laziness and an inability to look beyond the numbers next to the logo.
LSU has two wins against ranked teams on their schedule – 28-24 against Wisconsin to open the year wherein the Badgers forgot to give the ball to Melvin Gordon at halftime and let LSU score 21 points, and a 10-7 fugly win against Ole Miss that had “drama” the same way a couple of drunk housewives throwing crap at each other on a Bravo show have “character development.” And yet, they were #17 in the country going into the weekend because they had losses to highly-ranked Auburn, Mississippi State, and Alabama, who themselves benefited from “good” wins against the usually-ranked Tigers.
Miss. State was #1 in the country before this weekend because they beat 4-loss LSU, 3-loss Auburn, and 4-loss A&M. Since then, they struggled to beat Arkansas and had a meh performance against Kentucky, but are still in the playoff hunt and will basically play an elimination game against Ole Miss to end the year, a team that had an okay win against Boise St. to open the year (don’t be fooled by that 35-13 score; it was an ugly game until well into the 4th quarter), a legit good win against Alabama, a victory over that same A&M team, and “good” losses to LSU and Auburn.
All of these teams are basically trading off wins; you go up and your opponent goes down, and next week you’ll trade places again. People call it “competitive balance” and that has some merit, but at some point balance becomes mediocrity, and I’m starting to think that is the case for the SEC this year. There are no dominant teams in the country; FSU is a paper tiger at #1 given how they’ve looked for weeks now, and the Pac-12 and Big-12 keeping get in each other’s way. So I get that the SEC feels like a safe bet because of their recent dominance. But actually watching these games, it feels like this year is the worst type of one for the new playoff format. Nobody really deserves to be #3 or #4, and if this was a skins game in golf you’d almost rather they roll over the 2 spots to next year when, maybe, there would be more deserving candidates. But what I do know is that barring a major immolation by a couple of teams, the SEC will probably get a 2-loss team into the playoff because of musical chairs in the polls, not because of any amazing evidence on the field.
Worst: F*cking Ohio
[Note: This report about Clark’s situation came out as I wrote this entry. Based on the details included therein, this is a bad situation for all involved and, if true, should lead to Clark’s immediate dismissal from the team. I’m leaving in my thoughts here because I feel the themes remain true.]
So I don’t know what happened to Frank Clark this weekend; seems like nobody does beyond the basics. He was arrested in Ohio for a misdemeanor domestic violence offense. It’s the most serious misdemeanor offense charge, but the heaviest penalty is up to 6 months in jail and up to $1,000 in fines. I’m still a registered attorney in Michigan as well New York state, but I never practiced in this area of law and have no experience in Ohio, so I’m not able to comment on the overall seriousness of the charges. But what I do know is that Frank Clark did something significant enough that police were called, he was arrested and charged, and (to my knowledge) is awaiting a bail hearing/bond posting. I’m sure there are threads out there in the ether where people claim to know more, but until I see something more credible than boojack321_UMSUX, I’m not going to take those claims with much salt.
It doesn’t surprise me that people have overreacted and started to concoct their own narratives regarding what happened this weekend; this is of course the internet, and the Michigan fanbase is as neurotic and reactionary as any others. I’ve read people calling for restraint until we hear more, others claim this is yet more proof that Hoke has lost this team, and (sadly) a number of people denigrating Frank Clark and distancing themselves from his association with Michigan. I remain steadfast in the insane belief that we don’t know enough to pass any judgment one way or another, but I’m also a philistine.
In no way should this be taken as some greater indictment of Hoke or the program; Frank Clark's actions on a bye week, miles away from campus, are his own alone. This is not Hoke's fault, nor the school's, nor anyone else's; these are the actions, whatever they are, of a single person, and in no way should be try to read more into them than that.
By this time tomorrow we should know much more about what happened and proper Internet Justice will be handed down, but it is safe to assume that Clark won’t be suiting up this weekend barring an extremely rare reversal of the legal process, and I’m guessing his final game may well have been against Northwestern. If so, it will be a sad coda to a career at Michigan that has been marked with some ignominy (the laptop incident) as well as flashes of brilliance on the field.
Obviously I hope justice is served, and that once all of the facts come out the proper resolution is achieved. That said, and I know I’m just spitting in the wind by this point, but I hope the UM community pumps the brakes a bit on the crucifixion until we know more.
So Michigan beat Hillsdale comfortably after some early-game jitters. The offense looks pretty good, and the defense has its issues with so much inexperience in the front court but it can absolutely turn it on in spurts.
I thought Walton looked great running the offense, and Caris messed around and nearly got a triple-double for his efforts. The freshmen looked like freshmen, but you can see the potential there. In particular, I thought Dawkins looked really explosive out there in his limited minutes, and should be a nice second-team scoring and energy option.
It’s early, but it was nice to watch a Michigan team take care of business and look fun and interesting while they did so.
Best: Two More Weeks!
Like most people, I’m ready for this season to end. The Clark situation is one last kick in the balls, but it should be over soon. As I said last week, I’m not excited about UM to make a bowl game if they do, but whatever, I’ll still be hoping they pull off the win against Maryland and get to 6 wins. But this year could not end any sooner.
Two or three more games. Two or three more games.
Worst: That's No Moon
It was just a terrible game. And it just sucked all around for both teams, particularly on offenses. Devin Gardner had the worst passing performance this year against the Wildcats, and that includes an under-fire Christian Hackenberg, the yipp-tacular combined efforts of Wisconsin QBs, and whomever was the 8th-string walk-on Poli Sci QB who took the last three snaps of NW's preseason scrimmage. He threw 2 really bad INTs, had a couple more passes that should have been picked (including one that should have been taken to the house to end the first half), and never looked comfortable with any of his receivers. I cannot stress how bad of a performance this was; I will always defend Devin Gardner in aggregate, but in this game Michigan could have replaced him with a trebuchet made out of Gatorade bottles, athletic tape, Ro*Tel cheese, and Haas avocados and gotten a more complete performance out of a field general. I hope something comes out during this off week that he's injured, that he lost a contact in the first quarter and didn't have a free pair, that an international cabal is holding someone he cares hostage, something to explain how he went 11/24 for 109 yards and 2 interceptions, resulting in a QBR rating of 5.2. To put that into perspective, Joel Stave's 8/19-115 yards-1 TD/3 INT performance against NW was a 10.1.
Devin Funchess dropped at least 3 extremely catchable balls by my count while seemed disinterested in the whole proceedings, to the point that even the announcers were pointing it out. Wile had a kick blocked to end the half, Michigan was stopped on 4th-and-1 because Smith couldn't follow a block, and Funchess "fumbled" a ball after Miller bounced it off his chest as he motioned before the play. And while De'Veon Smith had himself a nice game running the ball (121 yards/6.7 ypc/1TD), the team as a whole only recorded 100000000b total yards, which were 17 yards less than Trevor Siemian had throwing the ball. At halftime, Michigan had 4 punts and 6 FDs, and I was surprised they even had that many.
NW kept pace with the suck, though, by recording 12 yards rushing the ball, flubbing multiple punts and a FG attempt, throwing a pair of picks, fumbling the ball away on a punt return with no Michigan player within 5 yards, and failing on a couple of 4th-down conversions. The Wildcats were able to move the ball in fits and spurts, usually with short passes to Kyle Prater and, later, Toby Jones, but this was still an offense that had barely cracked 100 yards total before their last two drives. I don't even blame them for going for the win at the end of the game, as the last two drives were the only consistent offensive performances of the day by either sides, so might as well see if you can ride the wave of semi-competency for a couple more yards and a win.
Worst: Number 98 and DVR
I talked about this above, but I want to stress something about this particular performance by Gardner.
For various reasons (read: 1-year-old kid and new, time-consuming job), I've been watching the bulk of this year's B1G conference games on DVR. On one hand, this has been a godsend in terms of speeding through games; I can skip through the commercials, the trite analysis from guys in the booth being fed a narrative in their ears, the interminable replays that seem to always end with the refs sticking with the ruling on the field because the only angle they seem to have is a reflection off of a lineman's helmet. Since I have the general play-by-play from the game via ESPN and no need to analyze each 2-yard run for blocking assignments, I'm free to focus on only the meaningful drives and rewatch the memorable moments. It doesn't mean I don't "watch" the other parts of the game, but I can zip through the 3-and-outs that feature the same predictable runs and poorly-thrown balls without worrying about anything important happening.
Now, the negative of seeing the games hours later is that I'm watching it a bit more dispassionately; I know the outcome, so like in wrestling when you know the finish, you aren't as drawn in by the close finishes. It also means that I know Gardner isn't going to "turn it around" after a couple of bad passes, that he isn't going to start hitting his receivers in stride or stop locking onto them as soon as they break the huddle. Instead, I have to settle in for 3+ hours of poor mechanics, off-center throws, and a guy who looks lost out there trying to not bungle away a game that Northwestern keeps trying to hand over.
I do think he'll be better in two weeks, simply because he couldn't be much worse. Funchess looked lost out there as well, and for all of Norfleet's shortcomings he is still a missing weapon that Gardner has built up some rapport with over the years. And there were a couple of nice throws, usually to Darboh, and maybe with a couple of weeks to recover he'll be more inclined to run in situations when the defense is begging him to take the cheap yards they are handing out. But it isn't news to say Gardner's broken, and this game reaffirmed just how bad it is.
And of course, the worst part is that he's probably still the best QB option on this team. Morris has looked lost every time he's been given the ball, and next year he'll be a true junior (!!) with 2 starts to his name and (most likely) his third offensive coordinator in as many years. Maybe Speight will be better than advertised or Malzone will pull a Henne and be a freshman starter, but right now the QB position at Michigan looks dire both this year and in the foreseeable future. In fact, I suspect I'll be looking back at this year's QB performance with forlorn admiration midway through the 2015 season. It's crazy to remember how dynamic and exciting Gardner seemed when he started his first game against Minnesota 2 years ago, and how little of a shell of that player remains.
Credit should be given to the Michigan offensive line, which kept Gardner mostly clean (no sacks recorded) and opened up some good rushing lanes for the backs (mostly Smith), to the tune of 155 yards at 4.6 ypc. As expected, Drake Johnson couldn't replicate last week's career game, but the rushing attack minimized TFLs and helped grind down the clock on what turned out to be the game-winning FG. In fact, if it feels like the running game is significantly better than last year, you aren't alone: compared to last year's abysmal 3.3 ypc, this year's 4.5 ypc is basically OSU mixed with NOX, even more impressive given how little Devin Gardner has been used in the running game so far. It probably wouldn't fit Brady Hoke's definition of "tough guy" football, but Michigan has a semi-competent rushing attack that has been good about not getting caught behind the sticks too much.
Unfortunately, Michigan's passing offense has taken a dramatic step back, to the tune of 6.3 ypa (last year it was 8.2), and with 2-3 games to go Michigan doesn't even have half as many passing yards as last year's squad. I know losing Gallon hurt the team's spacing and put more pressure on Funchess and some of the younger players to create space, but this fall from semi-competence to debacle is stupefying given the personnel and experience out there. Yes, Gardner has been off most of the year, but as I mentioned last week it doesn't seem like anyone can get open or generate many yards after the catch, which creates this vicious feedback loop where Gardner has to make tough throws in short timeframes on these long, meandering drives, which ratchets up the stress on everyone involved and seems to numb Gardner's natural instincts. This passing offense should be better, and next year when Funchess is likely gone and Michigan is trotting out Darboh, Chesson, and a combination of Canteen, Harris, and freshmen du jour, it's not going to be fun in the slightest.
One final note - after the Michigan game I stuck around to catch part of the OSU-MSU game. A piece of me dies watching Urban Meyer trot out a first-year QB and RB combo and just dismantle a pretty good MSU defense. It's just so damn easy because it makes sense to force defenses to play left-handed, and yet for some reason Michigan seems to think they can tire out good defenses by just keep taking that right cross until the defense gets tired. Or, in picture form, this:
Best: The Defense (minus 2 drives)
The line was beaten up a bit by a bruising MSU rushing attack that apparently was on a mission to defend the sensibilities of an easily-offended nitwit and to teach the Wolverines a lesson about proper groundskeeping protocols, but the front 7 really showed up in this game. Frank Clark had a billion pass breakups at the line, including one that led to Goden's INT, and 1.5 sacks, and looked like an NFL draft pick out there. His bull rush on the 2-point conversion just bulldozed the tackle as well as Jackson, and watching Siemian just fall down because he expected not to be running up the butt of his line was the perfect end to a great day by Clark. Ojemudia chipped in with 2 sacks himself, though 1 was basically the definition of a "coverage" sack, and Henry was out there again creating havoc at the line. Glasgow carried on the St. Kovacs tradition with another competent performance, and again, 12 total yards rushing after NW had established that as the only competent component of their offense in previous games is damn impressive.
I thought Bolden and Ryan played reasonably well against the run, and while coverage wasn't great all day nothing broke big anywhere, which is basically a victory right now. Taylor was picked on early and late by Prater, and there were a couple of throws by Siemian that must have occurred when Brian was watching because the windows were basically portholes he threaded.
Even the last couple of drives when NW got it going were just a series of short passes and runs strung together; I would call them "disconcerting" but this defense has brain farts like this enough, and the season is so mercifully close to ending, that I've just come to accept them. Michigan's continued fear of being beat over the top creates a world in which Prater and Jones were given 7-yard cushions on 1st-and-10 in the second half, but at the same time your corners are expected to stay with these guys and, at least in this game, it didn't seem like Taylor could stay in contact consistently with his man.
Fitzgerald helped a bit kicking the FG deep in Michigan territory, but I'm kinda picking at nits here. This isn't a dominant unit and the top-10 rankings seem like hand-waving MATH more than actual, objective performance on the field, but a competent offense would have put this game out of reach early and this defensive effort would have looked even more dominant as a result. This is probably the best overall performance by the unit all season (maybe MNTM, but this is a Power 5-ish team here, on the road), so if the coaches are one the way out this at least feels like the best effort they could have expected. And given how meh Maryland has looked against good defenses this year, maybe the defenders will put forth one final encore before OSU eats their lunch in Columbus.
Worst: Road Warriors
So, yeah, this team is suffering from the rare condition that doesn't allow them to look remotely competent on the road. The last time Michigan looked like it could win convincingly outside of the Big House [EDIT: I don't know why I said ND last year; it was ND in 2010. Drink that up for a moment], and I'd say the best performance this year was in the loss to Rutgers, otherwise known as the game where Gary Nova threw for 400 F*CKING YARDS! It isn't news to say performance like this are an indictment of Brady Hoke's coaching, but it shocks me that the offense looks incredibly feeble going up against a NW defense that was lit up for 48 points by Iowa last week. I get that Evanston has been a bit of a house of horrors in recent years despite Michigan winning a couple of them, but anyone who thinks that Brady Hoke can win out to save his job just needs to look at games like this to see that that ship should have already sailed. He isn't going to the Horseshoe or even East Lansing and playing games like this; there were more Michigan fans in the stands that Wildcats, and yet Michigan played they were in Death Valley. His teams barely scrape by on the road, and the fact we are still talking about them struggling in these games 4 years into his tenure is unacceptable.
Best/Worst: No Horrible Coaching This Week?
Maybe my expectations have been permanently recalibrated, but I didn't see any particularly egregious examples of bad game management/coaching in this game by Michigan. Yeah, there were some questionable defensive calls on that last drive, but they weren't "boneheaded" as much as just bad playcalls that, sadly, lots of college coaches make. The offense didn't execute well, but there were a number of plays that should have broken big and were the right ones to make given the situation - in particular, I remember a 2nd-half pass to Funchess that would have gone for an easy score had Gardner not thrown it late.
Clock management was fine for what it was, and even the blocked FG at the end of the half was the right call if just depressing. In a perfect world Michigan could have been a bit more aggressive with three 1st-half possessions in NW territory, but with has bad as the offense looked and as good as the defense was playing, it made sense to keep the variance low and just try to grind out a win. It was ugly, but compared to previous weeks it was competently so.
Worst: The Team vs. this team
While I am on the record for not being the biggest fan of the Cult of Bo around these parts, I do recognize the selfless nature called upon in his "The Team, The Team, the Team" mantra. The point being made is that what matters is the team, not the individuals, and that playing as a cohesive unit with a singular purpose will lead to success. It's a bit simplistic, but as a rallying cry it makes sense for a football team.
As a Michigan fan, I've always cheered for the laundry in a sense; I obviously like and know the intricate details of most teams, but I'm a fan of "Michigan" more than I am of an particular squad. I want Michigan to win every game, with all the irrational fandom that entails. So when Michigan squeaked out this game against Northwestern and are basically in a one-game playoff to make a lower-tier bowl game, I was excited because I want Michigan to win games and go to bowls. Beyond the palace intrigue of Brady Hoke's continued employment (I'm of the belief that he's been gone since the day Brandon stepped down, and only in a world where he had beaten MSU and OSU could he have gotten a reprieve) and how wins affect the odds of him being retained, the Team winning more games and finishing on a high note is all I want.
That said, this particular team is really hard to root on to a bowl game. Now, this in no way is a reflection on the players or coaches; by all accounts this team is full of nice people who are trying their best, and in some ways they are one of the more endearing clubs simply because they've survived so much controversy and insanity. But as a football team, they are just so bad at some many parts of the sport that them making some crappy bowl embodies a lot of what is wrong with college football. It's a team that probably won't beat anyone better than "meh" all year going to a cash-loser bowl game at Yankee Stadium or Ford Field because of "ratings" and because guys in sports coats say they should and will give each player used copies of GTA IV and Fat Heads of Bernie Williams for their dorm rooms as a "goody" bag. Sure, I get all of the benefits of another game (more practices, a reward for the hard work the players, seniors going out on top, marginal improvement in recruiting), but it just feels, well, wrong for a team this flawed and mediocre to be playing another game. This season has been a disappointment to the nth degree, and finishing 7-6 without a credible win on the docket feels like a cheat, a way to game the system because nobody was paying attention.
I guess my point is that as a Michigan fan I want to see them go 7-6 or (heaven forbid) 8-5, but it just doesn't feel right based on this team's performance on the field all year. This is more an indictment of college football than Michigan in general, but it's still disconcerting.
Best: Bye, Bye, Bye!
So another week to relax and, sigh, get ready for the biggest game of the year against Maryland. Michigan absolutely has to win against the Terrapins, which again, sigh, because they aren't going to go to Columbus and "shock the world". Win next week and I'll be getting my Metro North tickets to Yankee Stadium; lose and I'll start download FlightTracker on my phone.