Mason NEEDS this, Pistons, after all you've put him through
I wanted to name this “Best and Worst: Rounds 1000000 and 0100000” but thought better of it.
Best: Survivor Series
(Because I want to lose a quarter of my readership off the bat)*
Growing up, my favorite professional wrestling event was called the Survivor Series, which typically featured teams of 4 or 5 wrestlers competing in an elimination-style match until all members of a team were eliminated. Over time this conceit has been diminished to a minor role as the Series has become a more generic Pay-Per-View, but at its advent it created a rare opportunity to tell a multitude of storylines during a single match. With relatively simple booking, you could put together teams that worked both on a base level (heels vs. babyfaces) as well as a nuanced (frenemies competing together, fissures starting to form between former best friends, etc.) one, while also teasing marquee matchups in the future.
But these matches all shared a fatal flaw, one that probably explains why they are not very common in recent years. Before getting into it, though, I should probably step back for a minute and provide some ground rules for the 2 of you who didn’t skip this section but also don’t follow professional wrestling.
“Good” wrestling matches are like your classic three-act play: the first act sets the scene and fleshes the characters out (via your standard “wrestling holds” and light brawling); the middle act is where the drama begins, typically with the face/good guy in peril as the heel dominates; and the third and final act is when the face mounts his comeback and a resolution occurs, usually with a dramatic final move leading to a victory for one of the wrestlers.
The problem with an elimination-style match is that this predictable formula doesn’t work on a micro level between combatants; on a macro level, of course, you can have the “good” and “bad” teams follow the general formula. But you can’t have 8-9 confrontations end with a finisher and a pin because, well, fans would get bored and you need to “protect” future match-ups by leaving some mystery and uncertainty about the outcomes. And so, watching these old matches you see guys pinning each with transitional or intermediary moves like lariats, sunset flips, and rollups, reserving the more high-impact moves for the end of the match, if ever.
So what does this have to do with UM getting to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year? Well, it’s that this tournament run needs to be viewed as part of a larger piece, of a team “surviving and advancing” as much as vanquishing opponents. Just like last year, these first couple of games were marked by moments of extreme beauty (8-15 from 3 in the first half against Texas, GRIII “chess”-ing fools) and long stretches of blergh (missing 15 of 18 to start the 2nd half against Wofford). Last year’s first weekend was punctuated with the evisceration of VCU’s swarming defense, but it started with a pretty ugly win over South Dakota State.
Blowouts aren’t really this team’s M.O.; even when they are shooting the lights out (like they did against Nebraska and Illinois during the conference slate and for the first half against Texas), they don’t play that ball-hawking, turnover-forcing tempo that leads to the Cardinals dropping 58 in the first half against Rutgers. They deliver knockout shots, but they’re of the “punches in bunches” Floyd Mayweather type instead of Mike Tyson’s “good night sweet prince”.
And unlike last year, where UM was staring down a date with #1 seed Kansas followed by a terrifying Florida team, the Mercer Nae Nae’s give UM another double-digit seed before they’d face either (I’m guessing) a rematch with Louisville or a winnable contest with Wichita St. And so if they can continue playing acceptable enough defense to weather the inevitable rough shooting patches, the path is there for them to make it back to the Final Four.
Best: Going Out in Style
At some point Jordan Morgan’s senior year will end and he’ll move on to the next stage in his life, but he is doing everything he can to keep it going a couple more games. He pulled down 10 rebounds in both games this weekend and added 25 points and 4 assists. In so many ways is he the perfect center for this team (solid rebounder and defender, doesn’t need the ball to be effective, can run and always has his hands up to score off the pick and roll/penetration), and it’s been fun seeing him put a nice exclamation point on a memorable career.
Best: A Dog-Related Pun in Picture Form is Worth a Thousand Puns in Words
So yeah, GRIII had himself a weekend. Going into the tournament, one of the team’s more glaring weaknesses was its lack of a secondary rebounder after Morford. You heard rumblings about LeVert possibly helping out, but you can only expect so much from a guy whose official bio lists him 10 pounds more than Spike. No, if UM was going to have any chance of not getting obliterated on the boards, it was going to be from Robinson, and while it didn’t much matter against Wofford, I thought he held up well (12 total rebounds, including 5 offensive) in that regard while also playing 71 of a possible 80 minutes. Sure, Texas pulled down 21 offensive rebounds, but there are going to be lots of opportunities when you shoot 37% on 62 shots, and it felt like that number was goosed a bit by some clustering in the second half when Texas just crashed the boards in a mad scramble to make it close (they had 6 in about a 5-minute span in the second half as they cut UM’s lead from 17 to 11, and another 3 at the end of the game).
Plus, it felt like Robinson displayed his increasing assertiveness on the offensive end (a team-leading 14 shots against Wofford and another 10 against Texas), especially during that second-half stretch when Texas cut the lead to 8 and Robinson responded with 2 FTs, a block, a jumper and then a 3 to push the lead back out to 11. No matter how many cutaways they make to his dad in the stands at the game, Robinson will never have his game, but there has been a steady increase in his confidence, if not his competence, on the offensive side. He’s still a pretty horrible shooter all year from outside (28%), but he’s deadly from inside the arc (58%) and good at the FT line. He still isn’t a deadeye from outside, but a look at his boxscores shows fewer threes that (I presume) are more in the flow of the offense as well as a renewed scoring touch inside.
They’ll need his athleticism to help wear down Mercer, and Tennessee seems like a bruisier, more defensive-focused version of Texas (#3 in rebound margin nationally, top-20 defense). Holding up against the size and strength of Texas was a positive, and even though it increases the likelihood he’ll leave for the draft, it is great to see Robinson rounding into form when it matters most.
5 starters were in double-figures against Texas and 7 guys scored against Wofford with none more than Stauskas’s 14. Still, the best stat of the weekend is that the team had 31 assists on 46 makes, including a career-high 8 from Stauskas to go along with his 17 points against Texas. Beilein’s offense isn’t designed for a dominant ball-handler or singular scorer, so getting an assist on 67% of your baskets means everyone is touching the ball and the best shot is usually going up.
Best: “Veteran” Sophomores
It is weird to say this about a second-year backup, but having Spike’s “veteran” touch at PG has helped immensely so far in this tournament, especially when Texas turned up the press a bit and Beilein could bring in Spike to spell Walton. Between Stauskas, LeVert, Spike, and Robinson, you have 4 guys who were key parts of last year’s team and readily adaptable to defensive shifts and gameplan changes. Especially if Michigan runs into Louisville or some other team that loves to press and push the tempo, having that many capable ballhandlers will be immensely valuable.
Worst: Hold Onto the Damn Ball
Though they corrected course rather emphatically against Texas, UM had a very uncharacteristic 11 TOs against Wofford. As others noted, it was probably just a weird game that happens to everyone, considering this is one of the least turnover-prone teams in the country, though it was a bit shocking to witness. It (almost) made me sympathize with MSU fans who have had to watch that all year out of guys like Valentine.
And while it didn’t hurt them much against Wofford…
Worst: Damn Rollercoaster
I absolutely recognize that when you have a team as reliant on jumpshots and three-pointing shooting as UM, there are going to be stretches of “Death from Above” when your breakfast tastes better than any one you have ever tasted before, and there are going to be games when nobody seems capable of putting the ball in the hole. But that crystal-clear clarity doesn’t make me un-see that second half against Wofford or silence those concerns of how a game could get out of hand if the other team didn’t shoot 1-11 and 36% overall in that half as well.
I actually do think the defense has taken a small step up in the tournament, as they have escaped the dodgy refereeing of the Big Ten into a world on the “reality” side of the Mason-Dixon line of the charge/blocking call. No matter how you slice it, holding a tourney team to 40 points (a school tournament record) is impressive, and to follow it up with another nice performance against a tough Texas team that can give you fits inside shouldn’t be ignored or minimized. But they’ve also faced two of the worst shooting teams in the country, and no amount of increased pressure and “closing out” is going to sustain a 5/30 rate on 3’s.
So as cliche as it is, UM needs to keep starting games shooting well and build a lead that can be maintained when the shots stop dropping. While the team has shown great resiliency, this offensive scheme is so (relatively) ponderous that it isn’t equipped to score lots of points quickly. Indeed, this team is built to get a lead and then trade you buckets as you try to catch up, with long possessions and the effect it has on the game clock serving as a 6th defender. The nature of single-elimination tournaments is that sometimes you’ll keep throwing scissors while the other team can’t help but stumble into rock, but the fewer times you give let it stay close the fewer times you can be surprised.
Worst: Free Throw Defense
This probably sounds like a broken record, but Texas joined an illustrious list of squads that could not f’ing miss at the line all game. All year the Longhorns shot 66% on FT’s; this game, 94% on 16 shots. That’s a 5-point swing that pushes a comfortable victory into a bit of a runaway. It hasn’t hurt them yet and it may not this tournament, but man is it infuriating to watch.
Of the many things they fail to tell you at the hospital after your wife has given birth is that your sports viewing habits will be indelibly changed by your baby’s arrival. Whereas before you could walk into the living room and basically own the TV whenever your favorite team is playing, now I get this look from my just-returning-to-work-and-definitely-stressed mother of my child.
So combined with work and a long commute, I’ve had to watch these games in non-traditional formats, either on feeds via the internet or on DVR. In a sense it has helped because I know the outcome or am so distracted that I just root for the laundry and the final score. But at the same time, you feel a bit disconnected from the best part of fandom, which is organically enjoying athletes playing a sport and (hopefully) winning. I’m not trying to be a buzzkill because I am absolutely ecstatic that she’s in my life, but for future mothers and fathers out there I’m here to warn you that your friends who say nothing changes are either liars or delusional liars.
Best: On We March
So on to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year, a streak that UM hasn’t enjoyed since [REDACTED]. Looking at the relative struggles of presumed “studs” like Florida, MSU, and Arizona as well as a number of key upsets, I feel much better about this team’s chances to emerge from this bracket, and at the very least make a solid run at a another championship game appearance.
Man, it feels SO nice to enjoy Michigan basketball again.
So this is going to be a bit abbreviated and focus only on MSU and the rest of the conference slate because, well, you know that Wiscy, Iowa, etc. happened and I like to save my salt for fresher wounds. Also, the WWE Network goes live Monday and there is a PPV on Sunday, so I’m marshalling my energy. You’ve been warned.
Best: All Three Phases
I remember very little from Chem 100 other than the fact things (intentionally) blew up occasionally, that the lecture hall had more students than my HS, and that most substances can exist in one of three states at any given time – solid, fluid, and gas.* Depending on both internal and external factors, a substance can vacillate between any of these states, with many a tome written and award earned from the study of these changes and the ensuing results. Because one of the most driving forces in human growth and evolution is this drive to figure out not only where you are, but how you got there; how what I’m holding in my hand or watching in the stars “happened” and what it means.
Michigan has beaten MSU 6 out of the last 8 meetings between the schools, with MSU not winning in Ann Arbor since early 2010, otherwise known as Heartbreak or, as I said to no one in particular sitting on my couch in the Bronx, “MF’ing Sims was held. What a bunch of shit!” I think talk of tides turning and rivalries renewed are best left to Dick Vitale under the influence of the vapors wafting off Mike Krzyzewski’s essence as he passes the announcer’s table, but the Michigan that had beaten MSU 3 times (!) total between 1998 and 2010 has become nothing more than an ever-receding Dark Ages, where dragons reside and guys throw lobs up 49.
When the Aneurysm of Leadership led to UM’s first win at the Breslin since Harrison Ford kicked terrorists of planes and then followed it up with another win in Ann Arbor as certain PGs were instructed to vacate the premises quickly, it was easy to dismiss those victories as coming against a pretty mediocre MSU team that made it into the tournament on the strength of reputation and a couple of nice wins earlier in the year. Still, it was a young team that seemed to finally be fitting into the system Beilein envisioned when he left West Virginia; good (if streaky) shooters with enough playmakers to keep keep defenders on their toes and away from the perimeter. There was something in the ether circulating through Ann Arbor, a whiff of possibility.
The next four games in the rivalry followed predictably; both teams held serve at home, with MSU winning pretty convincingly while UM scored their two victories with a combined margin of victory of 2 points. But while the margins were different, the results were what you expected when two equal-ish teams meet up, with MSU the bully inside while UM tried to win on the wings. Those molecules of competitiveness and equality that everyone sensed in 2011 took on a more tangible form, whether it be more consistent recruiting successes or increased tournament bids; UM wasn’t on MSU’s level quite yet, but there was a fluidity with which the teams competed against each other, and for lack of a better word the “tide” was to UM’s back.
But what solidified a return of a true “rivalry” between the two schools has been the two games this year. UM no longer has Burke, everyone’s POY and one of the best players in UM history, or Tim Hardaway Jr., the erstwhile freshmen who dropped a 10 and 8 in that first win and who looks like a solid NBA pro. No, MSU is supposedly the team full of stars, the standard bearer for the conference, and UM the team in transition. And yet, in both games this year, UM has won going away. They’ve won even when some stars aren’t firing on all cylinders on the court while others sit in street clothes off it, and they’ve won with The Butterfly, the Thief, and Blouses leading the way. So it isn’t so much that the rivalry has “changed” because MSU and UM will always want to beat each other badly; it’s that UM has been under the crucible these past years and emerged as hardened and strong a team as one could have hoped for. They won’t win every game against MSU, but all but the most delusional Spartans know that UM isn’t going anywhere.
* And yes, I know about the triple point of water and that there are a number of non-standard states. It’s a sports blog; let me run with it.
Best: The Elimination Chamber
In WWF/E parlance, the “Road to Wrestlemania” begins at the Royal Rumble (which took place several weeks ago) and culminates in April in the Superdome. And smack dab in the middle of that road this year is Elimination Chamber, so titled after the eponymous steel-cage-and-pod that serves as the main event. This event serves two masters; one, to help keep certain stars and stories tread water and remain relevant, such as Drax, er Dave Bautista taking on a “Mexican Aristocrat” named Alberto Del Rio prior to challenging for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at Wrestlemania XXX. That type of plate spinning is standard issue for the non-Big 4 PPVs, but can still be infuriating if the payoff isn’t worth the hassle.
The second duty of these stop-gaps events is to end one narrative and/or introduce a new one that will help shape the coming weeks. While there are a couple of matches booked in this vein (for example, the corporate-controlled, SWAT-looking “Hounds of Justice” The Shield taking on the Wyatt Family, best described as deranged hillbillies [one with creepy sheep mask] led by a hulking Max Cady-type), the Elimination Chamber main event stands to be the origin from which most major storylines will emanate from heading into Wrestlemania. 6 performers will battle in the cage for the WWE title and a date with Mr. Bautista, and it is a veritable murderer’s row of the biggest names in the company, including champion Randy Orton, Jort Hogan and WWE mega-star John Cena, and Daniel Bryan, Indy darling whose simple “Yes” chant has permeated the sports world.
The premise behind the Chamber is simple; two wrestlers start the match, and at intervals thereafter another competitor is “released” from his pod into the match until all 6 wrestlers have been in the match. The man standing at the end is the champion. While there may be temporary alliances and the old adage of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” undoubtedly holds true, in the end everyone is looking out for himself. It’s fun to watch and, from storytelling and continuity perspectives, gives ample opportunities for feuds to end (or at least enter hibernation) and new ones to begin organically.
To say this conference season has created strange bedfellows is an understatement. Two weeks ago, UM fans found themselves urging Wisconsin to hold on against MSU; a week later, Wisconsin left Crisler with a resounding victory and fans cursing the bridge that birthed Bo Ryan. Similarly, MSU now finds itself needing IU to win at Crisler to end the year to realistically give them a chance at a partial conference crown.
Without a true round robin conference slate, these plenary rooting interests are common; scheduling seemingly handed Wisconsin a conference crown before tipoff, and now MSU has to close out the season with two ranked teams will be playing for seeding while UM has to protect against spoilers.
And yet, for all of the tiebreakers and conference prognostications based on a handful of remaining games, what will likely decide the 2013-2014 B1G conference crown will be these two games between UM and MSU. UM has swept the season series and will now (hopefully) enjoy raising a banner to start next year. They now control their destiny, which would be pretty awesome given how the season started.
Worst: The Damn Injuries
How Tom, you do know that when Dawson is back you’ll have your starting lineup in place…
LSAClassof2000 originally linked to it, but I thought it was apropos.
Still a valiant effort by Michigan State given all of their injuries. Plus, their injuries. And then you add in their injuries. Pure grit. — Tony Gerdeman (@GerdOzone) February 23, 2014
I get that memes are typically overblown events that people latch onto for mirth and humor. And around these parts, no greater tale of woe has emerged for ridicule than MSU’s continuous lamenting of “injuries” to stars that range from the understandable (Adrien Payne’s various maladies) to questionable (Keith Appling’s “unusable” wrist) all the way to laughable (Dawson Leadership Fisting** his way to hand surgery).
** DO NOT SEARCH FOR THAT TERM WHILE AT WORK!!!!
One could chalk up this disdain to fandom if Izzo and his charges brought up the lost players once or twice within the context of a press conference; so far this conference slate, every loss has been accompanied with the reminder that this team isn’t playing at full strength and that people may be “shut down” for stretches to recover. MSU hit a school record 17 3 pointers against Purdue, including 6 by Gary Harris. In their losses to Nebraska and UM, they hit 14 total out of 47, with Harris going 5 of 20. Apparently, those wrists, shoulders, and ankles were fine on Thursday but that long bus ride between East Lansing and Ann Arbor jostled all the bones out of sorts again.
Reenactment of MSU’s mid-week “team bonding” event
And yes, it does appear that Keith Appling is legitimately hurt, though perhaps playing him 38 minutes against Georgetown following 40 minutes against Iowa didn’t help. But what drives fans crazy isn’t that MSU is (rightfully) noting they have injuries; it is the damn repetitiveness of the refrain to cover up fundamental flaws with the Spartans and undermine legitimate wins by other programs. MSU could very well come around in the tournament and make a run; we’ve all seen it before. But at some point, you’d hope that the people being paid to cover sports for a living would ask for some other reason why the Spartans keep losing games they lead going into the second half.
Also, stop smacking the court with your hands if your f’ing wrists hurt.
Best: Everyone’s a Banana!
Once it became clear that Mitch McGary would be lost for the season, most fans expected Nik Stauskas to take the lead offensively for this team but there were legitimate concerns about who would provide that second level of scoring, the “second banana” if you will. Based on NBA hype, GRIII seemed the obvious choice, but he’s struggled all year with getting his shot and hasn’t “taken over” games the way many had hoped. The freshmen (Irvin and Walton) showed flashes, but neither set the world on fire and had maddening stretches. Morford are a lot of things, but offensive playmakers are not one of them. And Caris Lavert, while certainly capable of scoring flourishes, was still an unknown quantity who could keep UM faintly in a game against Duke but then score 1 point in 30 minutes against Stanford.
I said in the last recap that one of the “problems” (I use that word very loosely) with last year’s offense was Trey Burke’s ball domination as he facilitated the offense. It worked 99% of the time, but it also highlighted the part of basketball I hate the most: the hero ball/one-on-one style that started to take over during the later years of Jordan’s first NBA run and became almost unbearable in the mid-2000’s when Wade, Pierce, or Bryant would either hold the ball for 23 seconds before jacking up a three or slamming into a guy as they drive into the lane and pray for a foul or a bank-in. Burke was never this cavalier, but the team relied so heavily on him to be the point person that if he had an off night the team was typically in trouble, and he was encouraged to shoot his way out of it.
Since the first gauntlet, the offense has been less explosive overall, but you are seeing a unit that can Swiss army a team to death if given enough time. If Stauskas isn’t able to get open outside the arch, he and Walton are still able to drive and find shooters outside or bigs cutting to the rim. Irvin has been better in conference shooting the ball, and Spike has his microwave minutes that can turn the second unit into a force. And perhaps most impressively, Caris Lavert has emerged as the heir apparent to Tim Hardaway’s lack of conscious, unafraid to take “bad” shots when they need to be made while not shying away from contact inside. The team looks like one of those incredibly dangerous mid-majors (with perhaps a higher-than-average ceiling) that are so hard to defend because there isn’t a “star” that drives the whole production. They still have issues defensively that won’t be fixed this year, but this team should be able to hang with anyone as long as a couple of guys are on their game.
Worst: Keeping it Close
This is more a complaint directed at the Wisconsin, Iowa, and IU games than anything else, but this team simply cannot afford to have long stretches of poor shooting. They aren’t good enough defensively to keep pace with teams during those stretches, and while they usually don’t beat themselves (only 3 TOs this game), they went around 4 minutes without scoring a basket in the first half, allowing MSU to grab an 11 point lead while shooting 59% from the field. True, this wasn’t Wisconsin bad, or even MSU last year bad, but this team has a habit recently of letting teams mount first-half leads and then clawing after them. It worked this game because MSU cooled down significantly in the 2nd half (thanks in large part to Beilein calling for the 1-3-1 zone) while UM was able to make a bit of a run, but you can only go to that well so many times before it is dry. I know this sounds obvious, but I feel like a loss in these next 4 games will come from UM either allowing a team to shoot lights-out without responding properly, or slogging through a bad shooting night themselves.
I noticed this both during the 1st half of this game as well as a couple of the recent losses: people stating that prolonged dry spells were due to a “lack of leadership” by guys on the team. Now, I’m an avowed enemy of “feelingsball” and cliches, so I’m already not a fan of these digital diatribes. But what particularly irks me is the insanity of it; it is one thing to complain about WR loafing his route or not getting back on defense in transition, but it’s another thing to blame physics on a guy not “caring.” Unless Nik Stauskas is checking his WhatsApp messages and hitting on college girls while standing in the corner, missing shots have far more to do with random-ish chance and the vagaries of putting a ball through a cylinder from 20+ feet away than anything else someone might overhear at a bathhouse filled with Merril Hoge, Dickie V, and Herm Edwards.
Best: This Is The End
As has been noted numerous other places, the season isn’t over by a long shot; UM still has 4 games to play, and MSU, Iowa, and Wisconsin are all within varying spitting distances of the conference crown. Lose a game to Minnesota or IU and you are back to rooting for upsets elsewhere. But this MSU game should be the last “major” hurdle for the team, and at 11-3 they are also rounding into form a bit despite some setbacks. I probably won’t be back with another one of these columns until the regular season and BTN tourney are done, so hopefully this isn’t a jinx. But I’m looking forward to watching the next couple of games and know that I’m probably watching at least a share of the conference title for the 2nd time in 3 years.
Unlike in football, where you have a game a week and, thus, all carry a pretty high significance, basketball has far more games with varying levels of import. Last year I basically started this column with the tourney run, and so far the season has been just disjointed enough that it was hard to get a bead on what this team was capable of. So it wasn’t until this week’s games against Wiscy, Iowa, and MSU did I feel like I could do justice to a full-fledged Best and Worst on a series of games. Note that while I can at least impersonate someone who knows a couple of things about football, I am an avowed fanboy of basketball who begged his mom for a Charlotte Hornets Starter jacket and Bobby Hurley’s ITZ so that I could ball in the Michigan winters all day long.
Also, there might be wrestling references in here. To paraphrase Mel Gibson to Joaquin Phoenix, “Neg away.”
Best: Wrecking Ball
Even the most optimistic fan looked at this slate of games and said “2-1 would be fantastic, but just get 1 win and survive.” Then came the signature win at the Trohl Center, and everyone rejoiced for a day until the Ent Globtetrotters were seen emerging from a fertile Plains state. Then UM felled it’s second top-10 team of the week and the mood turned pure Lloyd Christmas with the possibility of a sweep at the Breslin, but for most that fantasy was quickly snuffed out by the realties of playing against a third top-10 team, on the road, before a rabid crowd that could easily sway the officials in ways both great and small. And it’s not like MSU is a pushover; led by the lilliputian Tom Izzo, one of the nation’s top coaches and 18-time winner of the Frances Pomeroy Van Gundy award for coaching, he’s the reason Cedar Village’s Google Image Search is virtually indistinguishable from that of London’s during World War 2.
(Click to enlarge. The black & white ones are London)
And yet, it was hard to shake the feeling at halftime that UM was going to sweep the week, or at the very least come damn close. Yes, the shooting has been unsustainably hot, but they were also able to weather some horrible officiating and Gary Harris’s amazing performance to keep the game close, and at some point a short-handed MSU team* wasn’t going to be able to hang with this squad, even if they weren’t at full-strength themselves. And so, like the other two games, UM won a bit going away, hitting their foul shots and playing stout enough defense to salt it. Basically, they followed the same formula MSU and UW have used for years to choke the life out of teams.
So now, midway through a season that started with much uncertainty, pocked with consternation and some despair, UM sits atop the best conference in the country, 7-0 for the first time since before anyone on this team was born. Though this is certainly not the last tough stretch for the team, and you have to expect some type of letdown in the coming weeks, these guys went from safe-if-unspectacular tourney team to one of the most dangerous outs in the country, a designation that seems perfectly appropriate for a Beilein squad. Speaking of which…
* This has been discussed elsewhere, but losing Payne to injury was tough. Losing Dawson to a “Fist Punch of Leadership” is just having an idiot on your team. Everyone loses players throughout the season, and sore wrists and bum shoulders weren’t the reasons UM has won 5 of the last 7 against MSU.
Best: The Beilein Hypothesis…
I’ve always believed that there are two types of successful college coaches: guys who thrive in chaos of new players and transition, and guys who thrive at installing players into a system. The archetypes of the prior are the one-and-done maestros like Calipari, while the patron saint of the latter are guys like Tom Izzo and Bo Ryan. Obviously, most coaches fall somewhere in this spectrum, with guys like Pitino, Krzyzewski, Boeheim, Self, and Williams making do with varying mixtures of near-pros and matriculating talent. But in general, their greatest successes fall into one of these two camps.
John Beilein has always been a system guy. Now, when I hear that term as it relates to college basketball, I think of your defensive taskmasters; your Ryans and Izzos who recruit annoyingly-good offensive rebounders and defense-first guards who want to leave teams looking like Zach Novak and muttering “Jon-a-than!” as they board their bus.
But with Beilein, the focus has always been about his offense, and he’s recruited those players with a very specific set of skills with aplomb since he arrived in Ann Arbor. Sure, he made do with imperfect lineups featuring guys like Morris, Harris, and Sims, talented players who helped carry UM back to respectability even when they weren’t great fits for the system. But you always saw him tinkering at the edges, trying to create the type of team that, well, he’s had for the past 2-3 years (though perhaps still a bit too guard-heavy, with McGary’s injury being a major factor).
Still, it has gotten to the point with Beilein’s team that they can lose one of the best players in the country and another first-round NBA player and really not miss a beat. Sure, Stauskas and Caris have made strides and the Morgan/Horford combo has impressed, but this team is still down 3/5ths of the starting lineup that took them to the championship game last year. And yet, after a couple of early stumbles as the pieces settled into place, the offensive productivity remains elite while the defense remains in line with last year’s acceptable rate. And unlike defense-heavy teams, which seem to be better able to plug in, how do I say this charitably, “high energy” guys with limited offensive games and still come out on top, Beilein’s system requires players to be able to actually score with some consistency, a skill that (I presume) is far less abundant.
It seems that it has gotten to the point with Beilein (and more importantly this team) that players have become largely interchangeable provided they possess certain basic skillsets and a decent level of athleticism. And in some ways, perhaps his best teams are going to be those bereft of a great many “stars” from an NBA perspective. This isn’t meant to invoke the Ewing Theory because losing in the championship game could never be construed as “underachieving”, but I do think that the Burke-Hardaway squad was hurt at times by having two NBA-ready players sometimes vying for the same shots and space; you heard various people complain gently that the “hero ball” at the end of games by Burke and Hardaway felt forced at times. Obviously it didn’t cost them in the end, but his WVU teams weren’t overflowing with NBA talent and yet they held serve in a remarkably tough Big East for years. That doesn’t mean you don’t want to recruit the best kids, but his team seems capable of holding serve without the superstars guys like Calipari need to replenish year-in/year-out.
My only nagging concern is that the defense, perhaps by design or due to the players best suited for this offense, seems to have settled at about average, which puts pressure on the offense to be significantly more efficient than other teams to compensate. It is a relatively minor concern and one that should further shrink as more talent arrives, but it should be noted when discussing Beilein’s successes.
So while I’m not yet ready to consider that any future Beilein team at UM can be penciled in for a certain number of wins and a tourney run, it is safe to say that the era of “fretting” about the state of the program is at an end. Given a reasonable number of healthy bodies and at least some talented offensive players, Beilein’s squads will be highly competitive in the toughest conference in the land, always in the running for conference banners and capable of beating anyone on a given night. That is the best mark of a good system, and given the past two decades of UM basketball, a welcome sign.
[He isn't even close to done with Bests yet. Jump!]
This will be a super-abbreviated version of Best and Worst. The game didn’t end until well into Sunday, which for a father of a not-quite 2-month old is akin to suicide by sleep deprivation, so I caught it on DVR. Rest assured, it was a quick watch. Plus, the game was the perfect microcosm of this past year, so there really isn’t anything “new” to add except at the fringes. So if you want me to rail against the coaching staff, the playcalling, the lack of coherent run-blocking, etc., feel free to re-read literally any of my diaries after Notre Dame.
Now, on with the Best and Worst of UM’s fall from grace into the BWW/Insight.com/Copper Bowl.
Best: Mama Said Knock You Out
One meme proliferating across this site in recent weeks is “death to 2013” and how this year of UM sports is the worst in memory. While I contend any year when one of your major programs plays in the national championship game and has a player win all of the national POY awards can’t be that bad, the struggles by football and hockey were unexpectedly traumatic. And so, in the same week we learn that Mitch McGary will miss the rest of the year with back surgery and the hockey team was swept out of the GLI, it is fitting that the final blow to 2013 be delivered by the Fightin’ Bill Snyder’s JuCo State Wildcats in a pretty complete victory against Brady Hoke’s Whatever Man Wolverines.
At least 2014 couldn’t be much worse, provided you don’t look at the 2014 football schedule, realize the basketball team is giving significant minutes to limited offensive players at center instead of a possible first-round draft pick, or the hockey team failing to beat a bunch of teams that aren’t going to sniff the NCAA tourney.
Best: That Could Have Gone WAY Worse…
What if I told you that Michigan would be giving their true freshman QB his first start in an organized football game since midway through his senior year of HS, with no discernible running game, a faltering defense, and facing a Kansas State team that was 11-2 last year and probably was a couple games better than its record and had gone 5-1 in its last 6 games? You would have expected the team the game to be a blowout of epic proportions, and you would have been right with that expectation.
Don’t get me wrong, this was a complete victory by KSU. They scored TDs on all three meaningful drives of the 1st half, and missed a chip-shot FG to start the 2nd half. Tyler Lockett abused Taylor and Countess repeatedly, a member of the Wayans-sized brood of Gronkowskis was blitheringly wide open, and the Wildcats started near midfield numerous times because of abysmal kick coverage. KSU completed 75% of its passes for 271 yards, averaged 4.1 ypc on 36 carries, and held UM’s non-Morris and non-Funchess runners to 8 yards on 9 carries, which is probably the 3rd-worst rushing performance of the year.*
And yet, this wasn’t MSU or Iowa, games where the offense looked anemic throughout and hope was eradicated swiftly and without mercy. Morris was solid in the first half, going 15 for 19 and playing within the confines of the limited offense, and even though he struggled a bit in the second half he showed poise and confidence you want to see in a young QB. The arm was as powerful as advertised, and the accuracy issues seemed within an acceptable range, not Worms Armageddon that had been heard about in practice. We saw a fair number of screens, WR runs, and other low-risk plays that helped UM move down the field on their first two drives. He was only sacked once, which is pretty amazing considering Gardner is walking around in a boot and still picking rib out of his teeth, and he did rush for 43 yards on 4 carries and showed a bit more athleticism than I think some expected.
While Lockett abused the secondary to the tune of 3 TDs, I thought the defensive line did a decent job getting pressure considering how much KSU was holding (2 were called plus a hands to the face of Clark), and the blitzes were getting through if a fraction late. It’s as young a defense as the offense, and it did feel like Mattison made some adjustments in the 2nd half that helped to slow down KSU. I’m not giving him a pass by any means (I’ll touch on the two coordinators later), but this is probably the second best offensive unit faced this year and holding them to 31 points (24 if you throw out Morris’s interception putting them on the 7 yard line) is below their season average and in line with what teams like Oklahoma and Ok St. gave up.
It was a loss, but not nearly as debilitating to me as those to Iowa and MSU because you can see the kernels of growth, of possibility, amongst the dreck.
* If you were expecting more exclamation points or emotion recounting those rushing numbers, I don’t know what to say. It’s been that type of year.
Worst: The Myth of the Bowl Practices
Every year, you hear fans talk about the benefits of bowl practices, of how it allows teams to shore up weak areas and promote maturation and growth of younger players through additional, structured activities. I’m sure there is some efficacy to those claims, especially for younger players who are able to become more comfortable with the schemes to run and coaches are able to roll out more of the playbook for those players returning the following season. Undoubtedly, there is value in letting football players play football for 3+ more weeks.
That said, I’m not sure why anyone expected things like “running the ball” and “LBers being good in coverage” to improve because the players had a couple more weeks to prepare. At best, bowl practices allow you to accentuate the things you do well and maybe add a wrinkle or two, but if you can’t do “X” for 12 games over 3 months it would be both amazing and sad if it finally “clicked” because you didn’t want to embarrass yourself at a bowl sponsored by a place where brosephs and middle-aged fathers hang out to choke down drenched chicken wings and overpriced alcohol and said bowl game isn’t even broadcasted.
Al Borges seemingly spent his time looking at his playbook and saying “welp, let’s see how many ways I can run the ball without relying on my offensive line to block effectively” while Mattison visited the Materials Science department to see if he could wring out any more flexure from his defensive schemes. The playcalls and the performances should feel, at best, like remixes of earlier games, maybe with a slightly different beat and a bit less ennui. But about the time Lockett was burning single-coverage for the 2nd TD in the first half and Shane Morris was trying to Tebow a ball on a delayed option-ish play, it was pretty clear that there was a pig beneath that nice shade of lipstick.
Worst: Just Go For It!
Watching UM kick short FGs on their first two drives deep into the red zone made me feel, well…
Again, you playing in the F’ING BW3 Bowl in Tempe, Arizona at 10:15 EST on December 28th. You had all year to play “conservative” and “for the win.” That got you to 7-5 with close wins against Akron and a neutered UConn. You wasted every gimmicky play in your playbook to matriculate down the field, have a true freshman at QB, no running game, and a defense that has struggled to stop dynamic offenses all year. I know that the advanced stats can’t take in all forms of context, but playing in a bowl previously named after an IT company pretty much gives you carte blanche to hang your balls all the way out and call whatever plays you want. It wasn’t a full surrender or anything, but I definitely heard this in the back of my mind.
8-5 and 7-6 are functionally the same even though, I guess, 8 wins looks better given recent UM history and the plateau it has been mired in, but how you get there says quite a bit. Brady Hoke has shown a willingness to take risks, so I’m not reading too much into these decisions, but man it would have been nice to at least see them go for it when the game was still in doubt. Plus, considering KSU had great field position after every kick-off, the points-versus-field position argument was even more skewed toward going for it.
Worst: The Coordinators
I’ll admit to being a bigger fan of Greg Mattison than Al Borges, so up front I want to make it clear that Al Borges called a pretty good first half of football and Mattison seemed absolutely lost in stopping a team whose passing offense was “throw to #16” and “throw to guy wide open in the middle of the field.” Borges has no functional running game, in part, because nobody seems able to block defenders, and so he went about trying ever-ludicrous methods to move the ball on the ground and the air without putting too much pressure on Shane Morris. These were all plays fans have seen before, but he wove in screens, end-arounds, sweeps, and easy middle-distance throws into a coherent gameplan that let UM move the ball pretty effectively on their first couple of drives. At the very least, he came out punching despite having one hand behind his back, and for that he deserves kudos. And in particular during that first foray into the redzone, a PI on either of Morris’s two passes to Gallon and Funchess probably would have allowed UM to score a TD and kept the game closer. The fact the offense sputtered in the 2nd half isn’t that surprising, as WR runs and delayed screens only work so often when your base offense is churning up less than a yard a carry and your WRs are being blanketed when they aren’t dropping passes from your amped-up QB. Borges has shown an ability to adapt somewhat these past couple of games, and next year it is going to need to be flexible because I have a hard time believing it will suddenly start running the ball under center for 4 ypc while airing the ball out with aplomb.
On the other side of the ball, this “bending” defense clearly broke in the first half, as KSU had no trouble moving up and down the field despite holding penalties putting them in some poor down-and-distances. Taylor and Countess couldn’t keep Lockett even remotely contained, and it seemed virtually impossible for the team to bring pressure while also maintain their assignments, leading to long conversions after acres of open field just appeared. The defense tightened up somewhat in the 2nd half, but this defense needs to make a massive step forward next year for this team to improve on their record, and it’s now been two games in a row where the defense seems flat-footed and ill-prepared against good offenses. That needs to change, and given the youth out there (Gedeon, Thomas, and Henry seemed to get significant run) along with some improving older players like Clark and a healthy Ryan, I expect that to happen.
Worst: Quarterback Controversy
Going into the game, you heard fans suggesting that if Morris played well you might see him getting the nod to start next year. I thought it was insane at the time, and while Morris played well in a limited offensive system, a healthy Devin Gardner gives this team the best chance to win next year by a healthy margin. Again, barring incredible improvements along the line, including replacing an All American and another pretty solid tackle, pass-blocking will probably take a step back while maybe run-blocking will take a tiny step forward. Gardner has shown all year that he can make plays when that happens, and while it isn’t always pretty it still feels like the best option given Morris’s limited experience and size. Sure, people will say that learning to play with “adversity” is necessary in a player’s development, but learning these lessons while possibly suffering through a litany of injuries won’t help anyone. It is a bit of cold calculus, but if next year is going to even rougher offensively I’d rather have the senior who has dealt with it before back there versus the “future” QB who hasn’t and doesn’t need to break a couple of ribs in the process.
Best: Smooth Operator
Jeremy Gallon, my spirit animal/forever Pomeroy Award winner, set the numerous records as a WR and reminded everyone that the cliche about judging books by covers applies doubly for angry mountain goats from Florida with rocketboots. I fully expect him to tear it up in the NFL as one of those terrifying slot WRs that Peyton Manning or Tom Brady use to demolish teams all year. I’m sure Brian and co. will provide a more fitting send-off, but it’s hard not to watch him play and appreciate just how special a player he has been these past 5 years.
Meh: On To Next Year
I’m sure I’ll be excited after NSD, when emotion and hope replace ennui and pessimism. This team has the talent to be better, and it should be next year. There probably should be some shakeups in the staff that won’t happen, but this isn’t a “tire fire” or a “lost lockerroom”. It was a team with gaping talent holes that the coaches couldn’t fill, probably due to a combination of stubbornness, youth, and bad luck. The team that nearly lost to Akron but also took OSU to the limit ended its season on a disappointing note, but given an offseason and some fresh blood I suspect they’ll be better. Everyone needs to get better and I doubt anyone in Schembechler Hall would argue with that assessment. But as a guy who only gets to watch 12-13 football games a year out of these Wolverines, I’ll take what I can get.
Best: You Play to Win the Game!
Right off the bat: I had zero, nada, zilch issue with Brady Hoke’s decision to go for the win after Funchess’s late TD. Short reason why: Because when you have a chance to end it, you end it now. This team has already seen triple OT twice this year, and as a head coach you are paid to look at your team and put them in the best position to win a game, and sometimes that position is 3 yards from the endzone with 30 seconds to play.
I can give you statistical and objective rationales supporting this decision: UM had given up 393 yards rushing up to that point (at an 8.5 ypc clip), the defense was without Ross and on its backup kicker while OSU’s kicker Basil had only missed one all year, and with 32 seconds left even a tie was not assured given Wile’s last OOB kick and the speed by which OSU’s offense can move the ball. In OT you’re starting from the 25 yard line, with all the vagaries and dangers inherent in the sport of football on Saturday, and expecting a team to execute in that circumstance (especially given their inconsistencies all year) is a recipe for heartache. In short, you may never be that close to the endzone again this game, with a near-full playbook (I’ll get to the actual playcall a bit later) and the defense clearly on its heels.
Gardner was having a great game but had already been sacked 3 times (including once on that last scoring drive) and hit on numerous runs. In OT, the weight of the offense would undoubtedly been placed even heavier on his arms and legs, appendages that had already suffered immensely in this game (it was clear he was struggling to plant his foot while throwing the ball at times, and his recent fumbling issues indicated some arm injury).
Across the field, OSU had failed to really slow down the UM offense all day, giving up over 600 yards and failing to stop Funchess’s last TD from about the same distance. And while the situation isn’t perfectly encapsulated in the system, an advanced stat calculator pegged the success at over 55% given the down and distance.
But what made this the right call goes beyond the boxscore. I’m not one to believe to karma, that momentum works the same way to the flow of a football game as it does to TV scientists on rollerblades, or in the “power” of moral victories. But this team has been in a tailspin for weeks, notable as much for its ferocity as its totality. Against PSU, UM had played conservatively, conceding offensive aggression and creativity for the “certainty” and safety of FG attempts, decisions that cost them the game multiple times (and a game in which Bill O’Brien, in going for the eventual win in OT, did so because he didn’t want to drag the game out more and put that pressure on his kids). Against MSU, a late-game interception turned into –21 yards and the functional end of the game. Nebraska and Iowa were vary shades of domination obscured somewhat by some fortuitous scores, a game defense, and ineptitude on the part of the opponents. Even the dramatic win against NW felt hollow, needing a miracle kick to push a 9-9 game to overtime against a team that lost 7 of 8 to end the year. Along the way, the temperature of the offensive coordinator’s seat was best described on the Kelvin scale, major recruits were “keeping their options open”, and a vocal group of alumni were wondering if another shakeup needed to occur in Schembechler Hall.
Hoke had to make that call not because he had to prove he carried produce in his shorts, or because he wanted to add his name to arcane lists, or to make a certain agro part of the fanbase happy who question his toughness because he doesn’t scream at press conferences or throw stuff. Winning or losing this game wouldn’t have functionally changed the outcome for this season, unless I missed the rule change that gave you more “victories” for a close win over one team from Ohio instead of another. No, you make that 2-point call because in a season marked by offensive ineptitude and bungled opportunities, UM had a chance to remove all the uncertainty, all the coin flips, replays, and referees from the process and win or lose a game by matriculating a synthetic, oblong ball 3 yards. It didn’t work out, but by holding true to himself throughout this game Hoke showed that he was sick of playing it safe, at least for this afternoon.
Worst: And Yet…
I know, I just spent a couple hundred words espousing the virtues of Hoke’s decision, but in fairness I recognize the argument for kicking the tying extra point. As noted, neither defense was slowing the other offense down much, but in overtime it takes just one defensive play to end a game. UM had made some of those plays throughout the game, picking off an erratic Miller while also forcing a Hyde fumble. Gardner was having the second-best passing day in UM history, surpassed only by his game against IU earlier in the year, and the running game was functional and, at times, explosive (152 yards on 35 carries, a 4.3 ypc). Not surprisingly, Jeremy Gallon was adding to his legacy by notching the most receiving yards by a Wolverine against the Buckeyes (9/175/1), Funchess was still terrifying despite some drops, and Jake Butt and The Threat (combined 10/145/2) had emerged as competent alternative options.
Across the field, Miller had completed only 6 of 15 passes (though 2 were for TDs, including a long one to Smith due to the now-customary safety breakdown on a deep run), and while still a running threat was clearly not having a great day. Hyde rushed for an OSU record against UM (226 at 8.4 ypc) but had also fumbled, and I don’t know, maybe he was getting tired. While going for 2 showed faith in your offense it also was a bit of a white flag for your defense, and despite giving up 526 yards I thought the defense had played decent enough despite the Furman breakdown and their troubles taking down Miller and Hyde running the ball.
Beyond the play on the field, the conventional wisdom is you go for the tie at home and the win on the road; the idea is that road teams are subject to crowd noise and intimidation, unfamiliar sightlines and environments, “influential” referees, and various other factors. At home, you should extend the game out as needed, as all those factors working against your opponent are (in theory) in play for you, doubly so if you buy the notion that OSU would be reeling from the late UM comeback and might perform sub-optimally in overtime.
And while it stings a little to admit how Sparty it feels, playing spoiler to OSU’s perfect season isn’t exactly foreign to UM, and would provide one particularly delicious coda to an otherwise-uninspiring season.
For all these reasons and many more, I totally understand the argument for pushing the game into extra frames. Not saying I agree with it in practice, but had Hoke lined up Wile I wouldn’t have thrown my hands up in disgust.
Worst: Lining Up for Two, Again
One thing that DID drive me crazy was that final 2-point conversion play. Not because the first playcall was a bad idea; I like stacking WRs in short yardage because their dispersal can really disrupt a secondary and, at the very least, opens up some space in case Gardner wanted to run. I do like having at least one receiver on the other side just to keep the defense honest, but that’s a minor quibble.
But once UM lined up and OSU saw the formation, they called a TO to, I presume, align their defense in a different/better formation. So after the timeout, what did UM do? They lined up in (I believe) the same formation, or at least something functionally similar. I know there are limited plays for short-yardage situations, but at least give OSU a different look, a wrinkle, something that would provide some uncertainty. I’m not calling for the statute of liberty (though that would have been awesome), but something man. Instead, it felt like OSU knew the ball was going to Dileo before the snap and played it as such, picking off the pass basically as soon as it left Gardner’s hand. It felt like the “safe” call to make in that situation, and after a game full of ballsiness and dramatic comebacks, I’d have prefer something a bit different on the reset.
Worst: Hey, I Still Have Eligibility Remaining, Doesn’t Mean I Should Play Too
Now, I’m not questioning Josh Furman’s or Courtney Avery’s desire or inherent “Human Being”-ness, and I recognize that they are still a million times better football players than I have been or ever will be. That said, I remain flummoxed that both of them received so much playing time in such an important game after, at best, inconsistent seasons (and in Furman’s case, careers). Or in words that I uttered after that Smith TD, “Why the f**k aren’t Wilson and Gordon starting!” (censored for the small child in my arms that was trying to sleep between milk comas).
Given the run-heavy offense favored by OSU, Avery’s small stature made him a significant mismatch at FS compared to Gordon, who has about 30 pounds on him and had laid the wood on a couple of guys already this year. Plus, with Ross III out you had a sense that the safeties would need to be even more involved in the run game, or at least pose a threat to taking down the ballcarrier. And while I get that Josh Furman has always been touted as an above-average athlete, that hasn’t translated to on-field performance during his tenure at UM despite numerous opportunities. Trying to unearth some heretofore mystery diamond from the bench kind of makes sense against CMU or Akron, but against OSU I’d have hoped the roster changes would have been limited to injuries and a couple of trusted rotations.
Best: Gedeon’s Army
Pressed into service with Ross out of the lineup, I thought Ben Gedeon played decently, with the major caveat that OSU basically ran over UM all day. He had a nice sack of Miller early on, and tied for the lead on the team for solo and total tackles with 6. I’m not expecting him and Bolden to grade out particularly well, but he was a guy that people talked about having amazing athleticism and a mean streak, and I thought he acquitted himself out there well.
As for the defense overall, it was an inconsistent day that was alternately encouraging and infuriating. 526 total yards is below OSU’s season average, and on the 11 functional drives the defense forced 3 punts in addition to the 2 turnovers. Yes, the rest of OSU’s drives were all pretty epic scoring drives, but when you gave up 407 yards to Greg Davis you’ll take what you can get. The defense didn’t let OSU get out to its typical first-quarter lead (I don’t have the stat at hand, but they said during the game OSU had outscored opponents 200+ points to 40~ish to start the game), which kept the game manageable early on and let the offense establish itself a bit. And while Miller did throw for 2 TDs including the aforementioned blown coverage TD, he completed only 31% of his passes and generally looked pained throwing the ball.
All that said, the next UM-OSU game that doesn’t feature a massively blown coverage will be a welcome addition to my life. I know you can only do so much to prepare, but Mattison has seen this before by OSU and yet it continues to happen with a regularity that defies chance. Furthermore, there were a couple of throws early on by Miller that probably should have been caught for big gains but were either dropped or off-target, so perhaps his passing numbers are a bit deflated. Plus, when you are averaging almost 10 yards a carry, you really don’t need to throw the ball too much. It was a weird game all around so it is difficult to figure out how much of this was defensive breakdowns and how much was OSU being able to call “rock” with impunity because said rock is bigger than your LBs, but it remained a decent performance marred by some depressing moments.
A funny thing happened as I watched this game: the playcalling didn’t seem particularly different from past weeks. Sure, there were wrinkles: Gallon’s screen pass for 84 yards that he was Megatron’ed on (i.e. Calvin Johnson’s penchant last year of getting ankle-tackled just before the endzone), that delayed throwback screen to Fitz on the final scoring drive was a stroke of genius, and a running game that employed Gardner’s legs and the threat of an option to offset an aggressive OSU front 7. It felt like Borges spread the field out reasonably well, forcing a suspect OSU secondary to actually track receivers downfield instead of cheat toward the line, and (perhaps because of the long layoff between this game and the bowl) he seemed more willing to give Gardner the run-pass option that makes him so dangerous.
As noted earlier, young 98 had the second-best day passing in UM history while only being sacked 3 times (which feels like a win given how badly he’s been beaten up the past half-dozen games), and Green, Smith, and Toussaint were effective running the ball and, most importantly, limited the drive-killing TFLs (only 2 non-sack ones on the day). I’m not a connoisseur of blocking, but Gardner seemed to have enough time in the pocket to make his throws, and I saw linemen into the second level of blocking without 3 Buckeyes dogpiling the guy with the ball. So in that respect, it does feel like the offense “executed” to the coaches’ specifications. It only took 12 games, but I’m guessing Borges will be happy with how the offense moved the ball. That said…
Best: Is There a Tom Emanski for Tackling?
Because if there is, somebody needs to FedEx some copies to Luke Fickell immediately. While this wasn’t the worst tackling display I’ve witnessed (because, well, UM was once coached by GERG), the number of times OSU players failed to tackle properly was pretty amazing given the recruiting and talent bona fides on the field. I always thought South Carolina’s NFL Blitz-style “hitz!” were bad, but at least those attempts felt calculated. OSU had UM dead-to-rights on a couple of occasions (Funchess on a double-reverse, Jet Sweep by Gallon, an early Fitz run, Smith’s long run, a couple of Gardner scrambles) and either missed the initial tackle or failed to contain so that a big loss was either mitigated or even turned into a positive one. It was weird to see, especially in juxtaposition to UM that had trouble tackling Miller and Hyde because of their size but generally recorded TFLs when they were presented. I know Fickell is a disciple of Tressel and all, but Meyer’s lack of involvement on the defensive side puts a lot of pressure on the DC who may just not be up to the task. I know OSU ranks reasonably high on the FEI and advanced metrics for defense, but this unit has seemingly taken a pretty significant step back from those vintage Buckeye units, and at some point it is going to bite them in the ass when the offense slows down.
Worst: I’m Still Not Happy with the Offense
“But wait, they racked up over 600 yards and scored 41 points,” says you, conscientious blog reader. “They are improving, and maybe even turning the page on a new era of offensive competency in Ann Arbor.”
Well, maybe I’m too jaundiced or beaten down of a fan, but this offense is still basically the one that couldn’t crack 200 total yards 3 times this year (including last week), and who despite having record-setting days against IU and OSU is still 83rd in total offense. As noted above, the playcalling was a little better but also benefited immensely from OSU not tackling and otherwise failing to disrupt a unit that still seems uncertain of what to do, reliant on favored formations that most defenses have figured out pretty well.
What I think saved UM in this game is that they had some early success running the ball, which took pressure off Gardner throwing and didn’t allow OSU to run away with the game. I mean, OSU usually averages in the mid-70s in terms of number of plays, but UM was able to hold them to 61. Whereas in games past UM couldn’t string together coherent drives, here they were able to convert 8 of 14 3rd down plays as well as 1 of 2 4th down situations, keeping them on the field and never letting OSU get away even when they took the lead. Even with the restricted playbook Borges seems to be working from, being close on the scoreboard gave him the full complement to choose from, a luxury he’s had in other games but seemingly was unable to take advantage of. And it cannot be understated how the busted plays didn’t turn into 10+ yard losses; it kept the offense in manageable situations instead of the usual Sarlacc Pit 2nd/3rd-and-17 creates.
So I’m not dismissing the offensive performance out of hand; it was a revelation to see a competent unit move up and down the field with dynamic and successful plays. The offensive staff had a vision and they largely followed through on it, and that should be commended. But this felt a bit like the IU game wherein the offense ran its plays and OSU simply didn’t adjust/stop them like other teams have done before. Perhaps the Ohio governor’s decision to ban the letter ‘M’ meant the Buckeye defensive staff failed to check the mail for gametapes of the UM offense, because it certainly didn’t feel like Borges was breaking out anything demonstrably new, only that he seemed less afraid of spreading the field out and giving Gardner a chance to make plays in space. If I had any faith that would be the core of the offense going forward then I’d be less sanguine, but I’ve seen this tease before and, frankly, I’m not buying that he’s just doing this to pay for college.
Best: Brian’s Predictions
At the start of the season, Brian made some predictions for the offense. A couple of them were comically off (see improved rushing offense, Al Borges seems like a better coordinator), while others hewed closer to reality (Funchess blowing up happened a bit, but he’s struggled the last couple of weeks; Dileo was underutilized but was also injured for half the year). But the one he was dead on was about Gardner and Gallon solidifying their mind-meld, resulting in Gallon challenging Braylon’s best season. Right now, he’s about 50 yards short of the record, so expect to see this little jumpy mountain goat in the rarefied air of the great WRs at UM after the bowl game. It continues to amaze me that a Pomeroy candidate became one of the most prolific and dangerous deep threats AND endzone targets in history, but it was amazing to watch.
Worst: State of the Blog or
Best: Leave Brian Alone!
For those who may have missed the twitter feed, Brian voiced his displeasure with a subset of the UM fanbase that took him to task for the dour tone the blog has taken in recent weeks. Like a completely unnecessary best-of album, people chimed in with all the hits against MGoBlog and Brian’s take on the team. Some argued that he was being overly dramatic and whiny, that he didn’t understand football like a former player and thus his analysis was suspect, that he held himself in too high esteem for being a lowly blogger, and that he wasn’t a real fan because he publicly questioned the direction of the team and, I don’t know, wasn’t ecstatic at losing the 9th time in 10 chances against OSU. Basically, it was every comment thread on the site the past 2-3 weeks, compressed into 140 characters.
Now, I don’t expect a single person to give a crap what I’m about to say. The fact you have read this far makes me think you’re just bored and figure you won’t be getting a UFR soon enough so you might as well check out all of the content up right now. I’ve never really played organized football save a couple of weeks in PeeWee, I’m not a guy who can break down defenses or offenses with particular alacrity, and I’m not a huge “big ideas” writer either. I’m a moderately-intelligent alum who likes to watch football and cares about UM winning to the extent that I like nice things to happen to my alma mater. And I don’t have a dog in this fight; this blog would be fine without my diary, but I also find this site a nice pressure release from life and, I don’t know, helps me stretch out and flex a writing muscle that otherwise is hemmed in by my duties as a software programmer and occasional attorney.
So all that said, I’m sick of people acting as if this blog (or more particularly, Brian) needs to conform to their world-view for it to remain relevant. Now, I’m not defending Brian; he doesn’t need my help and I doubt gives two shits what I think. But as a loyal reader who enjoys the content and tone of this site, I’m tired of the meta arguments popping up that do nothing more than regurgitate the same 3-4 arguments for 50+ comments. This is a site on the web that talks about UM football from a particular perspective, no different than the other dozen or so blogs listed to your left. The only difference is that this space is the most prominent and, I guess, “influential” due to its size. But at its core, the arguments always feel like complaints about opinions, that Brian’s should be more in touch with their worldview because their voice needs to be heard/promoted.
This might sound esoteric, but I blame the concept of the “Internet” for this phenomenon wherein people come to expect free content to be customized for their pleasure, and are offended when it doesn’t happen because, hell, they can watch coaching fat-head supercuts on demand so dance monkey, dance. If you don’t like how the site is run or its content, go somewhere else. There are numerous sites I used to visit that I stopped when they became undesirable, and at no point did I tweet or email the proprietor and call him a “pussy” or question his writing style, nor did I provide unsolicited advice on how to “keep” me around by changing the content. For some reason, while people love the idea of the personalized echo chamber on the net, they are dead-set set against doing the legwork to find it, instead demanding the places they usually visit to do that work for them.
Listen, I’m not a fan of overly emo prose for its own sake, and I’ve taken people to task here for popular sentiments I disagree with. Conflicting opinions are and should be welcome everywhere, and anyone who thinks this site is overly draconian in its bannings should look at those instances carefully. But the number of people who say they “haven’t read the site in years” and “hate what happened to it” while still following the official twitter feed and maintaining accounts boggles my mind. Go somewhere else if it bothers you this much, or stick around and be productive, but the absolutely LEAST productive and MOST condescending thing you can do is provide “real talk” about one of the most popular football sites on the internet because you wish it wasn’t such a downer sometimes, man.
The team had an up-and-down season; I looked over my old diaries and it feels like ages ago I was calling this offense one of the best in recent memory. You want to focus on how “close” the team was to not being 7-5, go play horseshoes or hand grenades. The team probably isn’t as bad as it looks (only the MSU loss felt like a game UM wasn’t in late), but losing by a point to an overrated OSU team doesn’t mitigate the season-long struggles to run the ball and develop cohesive line play, implement a coherent offensive philosophy, and otherwise evolve and improve in year 3 of the Brady Hoke era. I still think there needs to be a shakeup on the offensive side of the ball, and unless Borges makes an about-face from a schematic standpoint expect next year to be as disjointed as this one, just without the most-prolific WR in team history and two NFL OTs to protect Devin Gardner.
For those who TL;DR’ed this section, I guess I’m #TeamBrian, #gosomewhereelse, #twitteristheworst, #ontherinterneteveryoneknowswhenyouareadouche.
Best: The Seniors
I’ll keep this brief: it’s a small class (which says something about why the team has struggled this year), but one with a couple of memorable players – Lewan, Gallon – and a bunch of grinders who stuck it out. I know it feels like every season people are trumpeting the outgoing players for sticking around during a tumultuous time, but these kids have seen the highs and lows of the last RR year, the Process, and the upheaval of these past couple seasons. They deserve better than 7-5 and a meh bowl game, but all was not for naught. They have their memories, from the big wins against OSU, MSU, VT, and ND, to a BCS win against VT, to (a perhaps somewhat hollow) 4 straight winning seasons. This isn’t the most accomplished or memorable group of seniors, but in many ways they bare the scars of UM’s transition into modern football era, and hopefully those will help this team going forward. Regardless, thanks to the seniors for their play this season and throughout their careers.
Best: One More Game!
It’s going to be a mediocre bowl game against an SEC team (probably), but so be it. After sitting through two successive bowl-less years, any time you can play and practice another month and send the seniors home with a win somewhere in Florida shouldn’t be downplayed. Next year will be different because of realignment and player losses, but for now this team has another game to play, meaning one more week to agonize, commiserate, debate, and cheer on Team 134.
Worst: Even Our Leader Has Fallen
I'm going to mail it in this week, guys. Just know that ahead of time.
— mgoblog (@mgoblog) November 23, 2013
Look what you’ve done to him, Michigan Football! His e-blood is on your hands!
Worst: Pretty Meta
I’m warning you all in advance that this post is going to be less about the game and more holistic. Here’s why UM lost this game: Iowa scored 17 points in the 2nd half while UM’s offense recorded 6 fricking yards before their last drive of the game. That ended in a fumble from Devin Gardner (who is probably injured). Because of course that’s how a game against Iowa should end.
If you want more detailed analysis of the actual reasons behind UM losing to Iowa, stick around for the UFR and the other diaries and you’ll get more than enough information. That ain’t me, and while I’ll provide some numbers and stats I’m not going to drop into the muck too heavily this post.
Best: It’s Still Real To Me!
Basically since the debacle against MSU, the sentiment around this team is that the fans are checking out because, well, this isn’t a particularly good team and watching them lose isn’t any normal person’s idea of a good time. The offense remains historically awful against competent opponents (and Minnesota, apparently), playing Devin Gardner behind this offensive line could very well violate multiple parts of the Geneva Convention protocols, and the defense continues to solider on despite talent and support issues. It is an unwatchable team not in the sense that it is a bunch of thugs or jerks, but in the way a snuff film wouldn’t wind up on my Netflix queue. It’s hard to watch something you care about, played by people who seem genial and passionate, get destroyed week in, week out. No one could be blamed for spending these last weekends of the fall enjoying time with family, drinking your artisanal beers, and basically doing ANYTHING that doesn’t turn otters into Brooks from Shawshank Redemption.
And yet, I still can’t find it in myself to turn off these games. I know why, of course: there are only 13-14 games a year, and when times are good or at least exciting there is nothing better to watch. And when the team isn’t that good (which, let’s be honest, started well before RR’s tenure made it official), the calcified memories of former greatness and the diminishing hope of a return keep me coming back. And despite the losses and the continuing sense that UM is still on the wrong side of history, I’ll keep watching and coming back to watch, even games like this when you could feel the loss coming after Iowa’s first drive of the 2nd half. And in all likelihood, my kids will love watching UM football as much as me, even when they realize that patch of missing hair isn’t because Dad was pranked. But this simply cannot end soon enough for me, and next week’s OSU game will likely get the background treatment as I shop online, listen to music, and otherwise tool around the apartment.
Best: Next Year’s Defense
I usually start these posts focusing on the offense, since it tends to be have the easier-to-identify storylines and players and, well, your offense usually has to score points to win games. But that short-changes the defense, muting their performance because of narrative difficulties. So in order to rectify this slight once, I’m going to start by praising this defense, which put forth an inspiring performance that was one of its best of the year.
The stats weren’t great (24 points from 407 total yards at 5.4 ypp), but this defense did more than enough to secure a victory. It forced 4 TOs, including 3 INTs, one which was returned for a TD, and added a turnover on downs despite consistently being put in sub-optimal positions thanks to some early punting issues as well as the continued ineptitude of the offense to even gain a first down. In fact, the defense only really started to struggle when both Morgan and Ross were lost to injuries and the cumulative play count (76 plays versus 57 run by UM) simply caught up to them. Perhaps a truly elite defense could have found some way to score another TD or not allowed the tying and go-ahead scores late in the 4th quarter, but you look at the players on the field and their experience and it is difficult not to see how good this unit will be going forward.
So Jake Ryan seems to be rounding into form nicely. His pressure of Rudock led to Beyer’s pick-six, and for much of the first half he was all over the field. He seemed less involved as the game dragged on, but given his expected recovery time anything he’s been able to provide this season is encouraging. Of course, given how the season has progressed it might have been nice had he been able to obtain an injury redshirt (?) instead of wasting it on a lost year, but nobody could have expected quite such an implosion.
Clark recorded 2.5 more TFLs and was generally a terror out there; presuming he continues to mature at this pace he could finally live up to some of the hype next year. Henry and Wormley looked strong as well, including a bullrush by Wormley that I will call a MANSACK because I am an 11-year-old hopped up on Pixie Sticks. And both Taylor and Countess had interceptions while largely keeping Iowa’s passing attack in check (the long completion to Smith was mostly on Avery, who let Smith get by him and then compounded that mistake by getting tangled up with another tackler). It isn’t a great unit, and I remain confused as to why guys like Wilson and the freshmen DBs get inconsistent minutes, but the defense will be the bedrock of next year’s team and should be a strength for years to come.
Worst: Next Year’s Offense
Do I think an offense that couldn’t get a first down in the 2nd half until the final drive and had 6 total yards until that point is going to be better next year without its two NFL tackles, record-setting WR, and competent-ish RB?
There’s nobody to really blame anymore. There is an alternate universe in which Al Borges’s gameplan scores points (and in at least one of those universes he is a clown made of candy), and Devin Gardner has not so much regressed as devolved into a QB who is so afraid/warned against making bad decisions in the flow of the game that he makes bad decisions haltingly throughout the game instead. The funny thing is, of course, is that it really isn’t his fault, since his ribs and spleen are still looking around for Frank his gallbladder, which is probably still in East Lansing.
The offensive line is sometimes able to block on running or passing downs, but never consistently and sometimes spectacularly badly. In order to at least sometimes keep the opposition from destroying the offensive play at the snap, so many players are dedicated to blocking that 1 or 2 receivers are available on passing plays, resulting in Gardner surveying the blanketed field in a panic before taking off on a (usually) ill-advised scramble. In this game Iowa only recorded a single sack, which has to be some type of record*, but added 10 more TFLs to add to UM’s nation-leading total. Gardner wasn’t helped by a couple of key drops by Funchess and Gallon, including a couple in the second half that would have extended drives. And a week after a semi-competent rushing attack, Derrick Green and Fitz Toussaint recorded 35 yards on 17 carries, with a long of 9. Execution or gameplan, at least this clownshow is coming to an end.
*At some point this year, UM was one of the national leaders in sacks allowed, with only 12 total before playing MSU. Now? One of the worst.
Worst: It’s a Noah’s Ark of Beaten Animals
Ace and others noted a continuation of a disturbing trend for the offense: over-reliance on a play that worked despite the fact that the other team was clearly adapting to it. Last week it was the bootleg/designed QB run in short yardage; this game, it felt like every run in the first half was initiated with a fake bubble screen pass, and on two consecutive plays in the 2nd half Al Borges called for a reverse to Funchess (which got 10 yards) followed by a functional reverse to Gallon which, unsurprisingly resulted in a 4 yard loss. People joke about a lizard brain with Al Borges, but at this point it isn’t so much a lizard response as it is a record skipping in the most Milli Vanilli way possible. He seemingly remains trapped in the same playcall until the drive ends, forgetting that his opponents are watching the same game and aren’t suffering from brain damage.
My issue with the playcalling isn’t that the plays are objectively bad; many of them should work. But after 11 games, the team still lacks an offensive identity that is reproducible game-to-game, and saying “we didn’t execute” whitewashes over this incoherence. There are plays in every game where a player makes the wrong decision or misses the right hole and the play dies; that happens to everyone. But this team and this offensive philosophy is so flawed and inconsistent that they can’t “luck” into positive plays that should occur even when breakdowns occur.
That there is no coherence, no consistency down-to-down, is hard to describe, but I’ll try. When Iowa started to assert itself at the end of the game, they did so by stringing together plays that consistently netted them positive yards. They handed off to the RB and he gained 3-4 yards, so they did it again and 3-4 more yards were ceded by the defense. Each play drew upon the previous and something called “momentum” took hold, and the Hawkeye offense was consistently able to move the ball. Well, that virtually never happens with UM. If one play gets them 4 yards, the next play can just as easily explode into a 10-yard loss. A pass to Gallon gets you to 2nd-and-1? Well, let’s call a couple of failed runs and punt. That happened in this game, it happened against PSU, it led to a 4th-and-forever punt against MSU, and it keeps happening. The offense has gone from idiosyncratic drive-to-drive to unpredictable play-to-play.
I know the UFR showed “growth” running the ball, but let’s remember that was against a NW team that hasn’t won a game since before Halloween. The passing game has devolved from a unit of strength to a bunch of 2-route formations that competent defense can stop with little effort, and for the third time this year UM didn’t crack 200 yards in total offense. In all likelihood Al Borges is going to be back next year, and I pray for the residents of the Detroit Zoo that he doesn’t take a shining to one of the giraffes.
Worst: The Replacements
So I saw quite a few people calling for Morris to get some meaningful snaps as the game spiraled out of control with UM leading by 14 points. This only intensified as Iowa poured it on by tying the score and taking the lead, culminating in the humiliation of having to watch Devin Gardner try to mount a meaingless comeback down 3 insurmountable points late in the game.
Oh, I’m sorry. How terribly embarrassing. I forgot to include the <sarcasm> font before posting. Maybe this helps.
I understand everyone’s disappointment with how the season has turned out, and burning Shane Morris’s red shirt on a couple of meaningless snaps against CMU and falling on his face against MSU is an indictment of early-Hoke recruiting (though it is pretty weak). But if anyone thinks putting him out there would be even remotely productive for anyone involved is simply foolish or overly reactionary. People have seen how bad Gardner has been playing behind this rickety line and with whatever tutelage his OC/QB coach has provided. Now imagine a smaller kid with less mobility trying to stay alive back there, and one who probably hasn’t even received 1/12th of Borges’s focus as a mentor. Hell, the only reason TO play Morris at this point is the indefinable hope that Borges hasn’t ruined him yet. I suspect he’ll see some time against OSU because there is little chance Gardner will be upright after that defensive line tees off on him, but it will not be pretty and nothing good will come of it.
Worst: Who Let Mr. Freeze Out of Arkham?
At some point during the game it was mentioned that Saturday’s weather was the coldest for a gameday at Kinnick, with 17 degrees mixed with 20+ mph winds resulting in near-zero windchill. Though I’m from Michigan and am still somewhat accustomed to the freezing temperatures that are common at this time, my years in New York, with its somewhat-ocean-moderated temperatures, copious coffee shops, and hellish subways, has largely shielded me from these bone-chilling temperatures.
From the initial kickoff, though, you could tell the weather would play a significant role in this game. Iowa’s first FG was quite high and wide, which tends to happen when you are kicking frozen pigs. And Wile’s first couple of punts into the wind averaged out to about 25 yards, giving Iowa great field position (though Wile was able to boom a couple of nice punts later on to flip the field). Going into the 4th quarter BTN showed that the average play into the wind was around 3 ypp and nearly doubled when the wind was to the offense’s back, and while Iowa’s late-game runs evened out those numbers a bit both teams were clearly affected by the cold temperatures. Of course, you’d figure that would have helped the team with the 14-point lead…
Worst: Hey Florida, is that supposed to make me feel better?
So Florida nearly pulled the upset against Georgia Southern this weekend. I saw some people on Twitter and other places say that at least Gator fans will understand how Michigan feels. First, nothing will ever replace the Horror, as that loss has basically hung over this team for 6 years. Secondly, at least UF will likely fire the guy who is running that flaming barge and find someone, anyone who is an improvement. I still believe in Hoke, but there feels like a very small chance that there will be a noticeable shakeup on this staff, and I’m not sure what the endgame will be without it. So while it is humorous that Florida couldn’t keep pace with a SoCon school, it doesn’t really take the sting out of the past 2 months.
Worst: That Final Offensive Drive
Pretty nonsensical, right? Well, this makes about as much sense as UM’s dogged insistence on running the ball on their last offensive drive despite ample proof it wasn’t going to work and would instead basically burn downs and clock. Outside of Green’s 4-yard run on the first play, UM ran the ball four more times for 4 yards (8 of which on that final run that Gardner fumbled) while throwing for 31 on two passes. I get wanting to keep the defense “honest” by not purely passing and exposing your poor pass protection to blitzing LBs, but you’ve had 20-some-odd minutes of offense to establish the run and it’s netted you 2ypc; maybe it’s just not your day. But wasting time and downs on these plays made no sense, put the offense in worse positions, and drove me insane. Last week UM got lucky that they somehow were able to get that kick off despite horrible clock management; this week their playcalling put them in tough positions all day despite having the lead for most of the game, and helped to doom their last gasp at escaping Iowa with the win.
Best: It’s Almost Over
So next week is OSU and then, I don’t know, Texas for some crappy bowl game. I don’t expect the OSU game to be particularly competitive, which is pretty tragic since this Buckeye outfit isn’t a juggernaut; they’re probably a 10-win team that got some scheduling luck and may very well lose to Alabama or FSU in the MNC game. But this week is shaping up to be the least exciting one I can remember leading up to the game, and that includes those RR years. At least then you had a sense that maybe the offense could surprise OSU for a bit; right now UM cracking 200 yards of total offense would be their Rose Bowl. I expect UM to keep it close early on because of the home field and emotions, but it’s going to get ugly, and probably sooner than you think.