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.
This is going to be an abbreviated Best and Worst. First off, I've just survived a weekend of family celebrating both my wife's and my daughter's birthdays, so I finished watching the DVR of the game about an hour ago. Plus, I'm dying right now of a sinus headache, the type that makes you wonder just how bad the longer-term damage would be to drill a teeny-weeny hole in your skull to release the pressure. Plus, it's IU, Michigan is 4-5, and they just fired Dave Brandon and Brady Hoke is pretty much doomed to follow. What happened on the field isn't really important.
Best: Michigan Won! And, Like, By A Lot of Points!! More Than the Spread!!!
By my own back-of-an-envelope calculations, this is the first time Michigan has done that to a Power 5 team since the Truman administration. That's the Marshall Plan for ya!
The game was never really in doubt when it became clear Indiana wasn't going to throw the ball forward, and with a 17-0 lead going into the half it was kinda, what's the word, "relaxing" to be watching a Michigan football game. For future reference, I want to feel this way again sooner rather than later.
Worst: The Part Where I Kinda Defend Dave Brandon
So yeah, something else happened in conjunction with this game.
The big news at the end of the week was David Brandon's resignation/peaceful surrender/It's not me, it's you as athletic director at the University of Michigan. Obviously, this comes as a shock to everyone.
What was a bit surprising was the speediness in which the change was made; while I doubt the two are related, within a week of MGoBlog's release of Dave Brandon's Live Journal-esque email screeds, the pizza baron was out of office and early reports have them looking hard at Jim Phillips at Northwestern amongst other targets, which seems to be a departure of sorts from the "Michigan Man" ties that drove previous searches and comprised the initial "wish lists" for Brandon's replacement. This is good for the University and, frankly, for Brandon; I certainly don't want to work at a place where a large number of people actively despise me, and I'm sure he'll rest easy on his pile of money, with many beautiful ladies.
But as (apparently) one of the resident contrarians/apologists for Dave Brandon as AD, I don't take much joy in his firing. He needed to go because he failed the most basic tenet of being an athletic directory, the same rule that offensive linemen are told: keep your name out of the newspapers. If you are doing your job well, nobody should be talking about you until the end of the year when you collecting your team awards and QBs are talking about how they owe you a steak dinner and a nice watch after the Pro Bowl.
Dave Brandon the man became a PR circus, mishandling so many public elements of his job that it almost felt like he was doing it on purpose. He kept trumpeting "dynamic pricing" of tickets while outright lying about attendance figures, he helped whittle away Michigan's voluminous waitlist by driving away large swaths of diehards with seat "donations" and screwy point systems, he messed around with gameday traditions and neutered the band in favor of Special K rocking the Big House with some of your favorite Deja Vu jams, and always, ALWAYS doubled down on bad decisions with condescension and general assholeness. In particular, his handling of the football team and it struggles, highlighted this year by Morris's concussion fiasco and the rally, destroyed whatever residual goodwill he still had with most fans.
Still, what continues to bother me about the discussion surrounding his firing is the pervasive argument that Brandon's tenure was not beneficial to Michigan athletics in general, which I'm not sure is (a) true, (b) measurable, and (c) relevant to his firing. As I stated earlier, Brandon had to go because he kept screwing up publicly and the cash cow was hemorrhaging support and money.
Measuring Brandon's tenure as it relates to other sports is difficult because so many factors are legitimately beyond his control and/or difficult to quantify. Brian tweeted the following:
BTN discussing how awesome Brandon's done with other sports. Top 5 Directors Cup finishes, 1999-2009: 10. Since: 1. — mgoblog (@mgoblog) October 31, 2014
The argument being made was that before Brandon arrived, Michigan was an elite athletic institution across a variety of sports; it wasn't just a "football factory" that failed to live up the dual ideals of amateurism and Title IX equality. Yet once his MBA-fueled policies took hold and he started to replace the institutional memory of the athletic department, the other non-revenue sports were marginalized and suffered.
First off, I question the premise that the Directors Cup is a good barometer of an athletic department's overall health and well-being. When Stanford is riding a John Wooden-esque 19-straight titles because they are really good at golf and water polo while sports like basketball, hockey, and wrestling are ignored, you have to wonder a bit about the system's efficacy.
So I went through and compiled a list of Michigan's finishes in the final standings since 1999, with the highest-scoring sport included.
|2009||5||M. Golf/W. Water Polo|
|2010||25||W. Water Polo|
So what I see is a school that was pretty good at Women's Rowing and Softball in the early 2000's, consistently finishing in the top 10 with one outlier in 2006. Then the year he took over, the school suffered through a pretty terrible run at the selected sports (a dip highly unlikely to have been affected by Brandon's nascent hiring), and has since trended upwards, reaching #4 despite their national championships in Men's swimming & diving and gymnastics not counting in the final tally. Rankings aren't complete for 2014, so there might be some softening. Still, if you read the chart it sure looks like Brandon stepped into a leaky ship and helped plug the holes, though not being deeply knowledgeable of the various other sports at UM, I can't say for sure.
And on an interesting sidenote, here is a breakdown of the national championships Michigan has claimed over the same span, broken up by BD (Before Brandon) and AD (After Brandon)
Number of National Championships from 1999-2009: 3
M Gymnastics: 1999
Field Hockey: 2001
Number of National Championships from 2010-2014: 4
M. Gymnastics: 2010, 2013, 2014
M. Swimming and Diving: 2013
My point isn't to make an argument that Brandon should have been retained because the gymnastics team suddenly got better, only to argue that Dave Brandon's official job was to be the Athletic Director for the ENTIRE University, and on paper it looks like he wasn't doing a half-bad job. The basketball team had just suffered through a 15-17 season after a promising return to the tournament in 2009-2010, and there were rumbling that Brandon might need to remove Beilein and go select one of "his" guys. Yet he stuck with a guy he inherited from the last administration, helped to improve facilities, and now Michigan is one of the most consistent basketball programs in the country. Conversely, the hockey team has gone into a talespin recently under Red, and yet it doesn't appear Brandon put much pressure on Berenson to turn the ship around or ship out.
Maybe with Brandon gone we'll hear from the other programs about his tenure from their perspective; my guess is that most will say he was fine to work with, gave them the resources they needed to be successful, and mostly stayed out of the way. We keep hearing condemnations from "friends of John Bacon" that Michigan's financials were in shambles and Brandon should be fired for that, and yet the Michigan brand is, by virtually any metric, still one of the most marketable and profitable out there, doubly impressive because of the state's meager economic assistance and the poor performance of the football team in years past. Making money is a major part of an AD's responsibility, and the guy who takes over for Brandon is probably continue a number of his policies, though probably with less fanfare. It isn't breaking news that college sports are "big business", and anyone expecting the next AD to be a radical departure from this core outlook is probably going to be disappointed.
So I guess my point is that Dave Brandon had to be fired because he had a number of very public flameouts, and when people are marching on your boss's lawn calling for your head it's time to pack up the framed footballs and retire to your floating island or wherever guys like Brandon hang out. But I don't know if he was a bad athletic director in totality, and the fact that doesn't matter in the final calculus of his firing shouldn't invalidate the positives he did at UM.
Best: The Gooch
Back to football, Indiana has a freshmen linebacker on their team called Greg Gooch. He didn't seem to chart, but I couldn't help seeing his name without remembering one of my favorite part-time characters on Scrubs.
Worst: The Offense is Still Broken
Yes, Michigan just put up 404 yards on Indiana, and recorded both their first 200-yard passing game of the year (!) and first 100-yard rusher game in the B1G since the last time UM played IU (!!), but man is it hard to get excited. For one thing, Indiana has a turrible defense that gives up huge plays to everyone, yet Michigan's longest play was a 34-yard strike to Darboh that featured Gardner having to bypass the rush, step into a lane, stutter-step about a million times, and still have to throw a tight throw to Amara as he finally shook off the IU defensive back. It was a good play and helped get Michigan in position for an opening score, but Jeremy Gallon had 369 yards receiving on his own last year against effectively the same IU defense, including multiple 50+ yard receptions. It remains an offense bereft of "playmakers", which I know is absolutely the most cliche thing to say but is kinda true.
If you look the offensive drive efficiency for NFL offenses, you see that the best teams score quickly and with (relatively) few plays. It makes sense intuitively, as dinking-and-dunking your way down the field requires your offense to execute multiple times successfully, which as anyone with a basic understanding of probability knows that success rates tend to go down the more times you tempt fate. Looking at Michigan's first couple of meaningful drives, you see these long 8+ play drives that are littered with short gains and the occasional long-ish run or completion but nothing really explosive. It worked because it was Indiana and Drake Johnson had a career game (more on that later), but when your longest plays of the year so far are 62-yard and 61-yard runs by Green and Smith against App. St. to start the season, and your future 1st-round WR has a season long of 43 yards on an ill-timed bomb that probably should have been picked off by the PSU safety, you can't read TOO deep into a semi-breakout day. Last year's offense was way more boom-or-bust, but this year's "consistent muck" probably wasn't what everyone hoped for when Michigan made a change at offensive coordinator.
Meh: Gardner, Again
Just copy-paste one of my sections about Gardner from any diary this year. Nothing has changed. He's broken, not in a way that can't be fixed, but in a way that nobody at Michigan, in the next 4 games, is going to come close to accomplishing. Sadly, he'd be the perfect QB for an Urban Meyer or a Chip Kelly offense, a guy who can outrun most defenders and throw the ball effectively enough to keep them honest. He's a sunk cost, a broken wagon wheel dipped in dysentery on the Oregon Trail of 2014 Michigan football.
Best(?): Disney's The Drake Johnson Story
First off, that was a legit good performance by Johnson, even with the opponent factored in. He looked confident, made decisive cuts, broke some tackles, and had a couple of bursts that reminded people he was a pretty accomplished hurdler at Pioneer. Once De'Veon Smith left the game with an injury, Johnson stepped in and turned a close-ish game into a blowout, and as noted before had the first 100-yard performance against a conference opponent in about a year. Plus, being a hometown kid performing so well on Homecoming, after such a tumultuous week, is a great story and one he'll probably remember forever.
That said, I have no expectation that he (or this team) will be able to reproduce this running effort against anyone else on the schedule save (maybe) Northwestern, but even that might be generous. It has literally been years since Michigan had anything approximating a consistent running game, and that was mostly because of the threat of Denard in the backfield. With Gardner still nursing an injured ankle and the coaches consciously not asking him to do much on the ground, this 184 yards feels like the end of a movie that probably won't have any more sequels this year.
Best: The Mendoza Line
This is the second team Michigan held a team under 200 yards of total offense (the other Miami [NTM]), and 75 of those came on IU's 2nd-to-last drive of the game. I know IU is starting 18th-string freshmen and Buffy sidekick Zander Diamont, who has thrown something like 23 passes for 35 yards in his career, but holding superback Tevin Coleman to a shade over 100 yards even with those garbage carries is impressive. Yes, everyone knew that IU had exactly two good players on offense - Coleman and Wynn - and so the defense was able to shift its formations to shutting down those two players, but it is still pretty impressive that the defense was actually able to execute as well as it did.
It's hard to tell if the unit is "good" or not, since they alternately kick offenses off the field quickly and give up 80+ yard TD drives to end halves, and the offense has been so disjointed and anemic against most teams on the schedule that they tend to give up yardage and points out of exhaustion as much as poor playmaking. Even the fact that the offense is one of the slowest in the country (thus reducing the total number of plays per game for both teams) hasn't been a blessing, since 3-and-outs that take 30 seconds or 3-and-outs that take 1 1/2/ minutes aren't functionally different.
I don't expect them to replicate a game like this against anyone left on the schedule, but looking at Maryland and NW I see the possibility for the defense to make a bit of a stand these next couple of weeks before OSU, well, you've all seen Oz. At best, it's going to be one of the lighter death scenes in Oz.
Again with all "this is Indiana" caveats applying, the defense still had 12 TFLs, including 2 sacks and another QB hit, spearheaded by Jake Ryan absolutely abusing IU's offensive line for 2.5 TFLs and 10 solo tackles all around. It still feels like a bit of a waste with him in the middle, but it was nice to see him has such a disruptive effect in the game.
It was also the second week in a row that Michigan got a bit of luck in the fumble recovery game, this time Mone recovering Coleman's second stumble-fumble of the first half that Michigan capitalized on for an early 10-point lead. It's a bit too little, too late, but after having major "luck" issues with fumbles and loose balls the past couple of years, it is nice to see the pendulum turn a bit toward the good guys.
Worst: The Muggles
Straight off, I didn't know what a Muggle was until this tweet came out. Despite being a guy who follows professional wrestling, I find stuff like Game of Thrones and Harry Potter slogs to read and just, I don't know, boring. By all means enjoy what you like, but I've always found it hilarious that a Board post about Wrestlemania is littered with people calling it dumb and fake and yet there are heated discussions about characters in a show based on a series of books about dragons and mythical wolves.
Anyway, apparently Elliott Mealer called the University of Michigan students who called for Dave Brandon's firing muggles, which followed up earlier comments from other former players that took issue with (I presume) their impression that people were a bit too excited about a guy they knew getting fired, and that the peanut gallery basically won out over the people who had played for the teams, including the current players. He later deleted the tweet, but because this is the internet a not insignificant number of people returned fire at Mealer, while other agreed with him for a variety of reasons (bad precedence, issues of accountability, etc.).
I don't agree with Mealer's specific rationale, as the "you didn't play, so how do you know" argument is factually weak and intellectually lazy. I don't need to have played lacrosse to know Dave Brandon wasn't very popular at UM and the lines against him were calcified, just like it doesn't take a parent to know this probably was a bad idea.
Still, he has his right to an opinion, just like anyone else.
But I have a bigger issue with the counter-argument that without "the muggles" paying tickets/attending games, there wouldn't be a need for guys like Mealer. First off, most schools don't "make money" on college sports; Michigan is one of the few with an athletic department that generates a profit and is self-sustaining; the vast majority of departments rely on public and private funding to keep everything running. And yet, there are over 125 FBS teams, and even more D1 athletic departments. Unless we take the argument to its logical extreme that nobody, anywhere would watch college sports, fans' contributions don't cover the cost of an athletic department. If it did, we wouldn't have basically any sports other than basketball, football, and baseball in the south and hockey in the northeast and Minnesota, and even that might be a stretch.
Secondly, the "I pay your salary" tone devalues a human's opinion and makes it akin to rank entertainment for the crowd's pleasure. You see it with the arguments against paying players a stipend beyond their scholarships, this idea that they should be happy they have received what they did and stop complaining because most everyone else paid his/her way at Michigan. Now, I'm not sure about the financial situation for others, but I paid part of my way through Michigan but had assistance from family; I definitely couldn't have afforded it without my loving benefactors (read: parents). I've since paid for two graduated degrees via a combination of loans, scholarships, and part-time work, but 18-year-old BronxBlue had some help, and based on my peers at UM I wasn't the outlier. And even if you did pay your whole way, I don't see how that should be held against other people who, for various reasons, are deemed worthy of additional assistance because of some extraordinary ability. We give scholarships to budding math geniuses, and yet in my years of work in various university licensing offices the vast majority of these individuals didn't generate enough money to cover their funding. It isn't their fault; in theory university's are designed to mold the future generations, and that can come from a multitude of actions.
Nobody is "right" in this situation; it's just a bunch of opinions about something that is history. Yes, mob rule isn't usually the best option for making important decisions, but in this case it was pretty clear that Brandon's continued employment was untenable, and the issue was not if but when. At the same time, men and women who work with Dave Brandon, who interact with him on a daily basis, may hold a different opinion of him compared to those who know him only from blog posts and email exchanges, some of whom certainly aren't blameless about the tone of the discussions. The old saying is you can't get 10 people to decide on the toppings for a pizza, so expecting everyone to agree about something so dramatic as the firing of a prominent member of the Michigan athletic department is nigh impossible.
Still, it continues to bother me how quickly the discussion turns from a difference of opinion to attacks on people's character or station in life, and I had (foolishly) hoped that the bulk of Michigan fans would have let it go.
They lost at Iowa 48 to 7, gaining a total of 180 yards of offense. Justin Jackson averaged more yards a run (4.0) than Trevor Siemian did throwing it (3.8), which I hear isn't a good thing. Hopefully Michigan can do roughly the same and get the back to .500 before the big showdown (sigh) with Maryland to decide bowl eligibility and let me book my ticket to the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium! Metro North, here I come!
For various reasons, this diary is going to be low on game-specific commentary. The box score tells a pretty complete tale already; I don't think you need me to supplement the numbers to get the drift. Plus, I need a little R&R.
Worst: Our Place in the Dirt
Few lines have gotten me this excited about a movie more than Mr. Dirk Pitt intoning about the plight of the human civilization as we look to the heavens for a way to escape a dying planet before the last embers of humanity as extinguished. From what I've read about the movie, it is all about scientists discovering a wormhole that (apparently) would allow faster-than-light space travel, Earth no longer being capable of sustaining life due to the effects of cataclysmic climate change, and Dr. Larch calling upon Rust Cohle and Fantine to travel beyond the solar system in search of new, habitable planets. Throw in Christopher Nolan and some cool cinematic effects, and I am already making triple-redundant babysitter plans for opening weekend. Doesn't look like I'll be missing much in the way of relevant football then.
For decades, Michigan fans looked at every season not just with hope, but with expectations. They expected to compete for conference titles and bowl wins, to beat rivals and stay atop the college wins list. To being, for lack of a better word, good. The stars didn't always align themselves (and let's be frank, more times than not goals were equal parts hubris and idealization), but Michigan fans always had their heads up, dreaming big.
But since 2006, that hasn't been the case. Sure, there have been glimmers here and there (most of 2011, the starts of 2009, 2010, and pre-Akron 2013), but they've all been mirages, pockets of air escaping a dying husk of a collective fantasy. Michigan the football program isn't "dead", of course; it will rebuild (with a new administration and a new coach) and undoubtedly return to competitiveness on a national stage. You don't post decades of winning seasons without being able to adapt and reform, and this fallow period will most likely be an historical outlier (and not a trend) when my kids look back 32 years from now.
But I'm talking about the future, of a generation of fans who are still figuring out what "Michigan football" means to them. They'll know it for this period of struggling, but as the team improves these memories will fade away, and one day they'll look back and wonder what the hell was happening in Ann Arbor in the late 00's and early 10's, much like my generation wonders about Bump Elliott and the 60's. But this generation, the current era of fans who only know Bo and Carr and "the Streak" and spoiling OSU's perfect seasons and consistently pants-ing MSU, those memories are being buried deeper and deeper under each blowout loss and non-competitive game, under every good coaching hire in Columbus and East Lansing, and every "great" alum chiming in with his #HOTTAKE about the current team. This is our first taste of failure, and its one that will linger for years.
I'll be there cheering on Michigan in 2019 or whenever they are "legitimately" good again. When they are beating MSU and OSU, winning 9-10 games consistently, and celebrating your first touchdown in nearly 3 games doesn't break Ace. But right now I'm staring at the ground, powerless to effect change and just hoping that someone, anyone can make sense of what has happened these past 7 years and make it stop. And yeah, I'm sure they will, but it will be hard to wipe away this much dirt, this much grime with a couple more wins against Sparty and a couple of shiny TV games. It's going to take something truly significant.
Or maybe none of this matters. Maybe this is just a cycle ever team goes through, the karmic payoff for 40+ years of bowl games and #1 selling merchandise. Maybe Michigan's Circadian rhythm is just longer than everyone else's, its death and rebirth on a different timeframe than most others, and thus what feels unfortunate and untimely is right on cosmic schedule.
Worst: 11 Points
Michigan scored an offensive touchdown against MSU for the first time in 3 games, or to put into perspective, for the first time since before the world had 7 billion people on it. Excuse me for a moment.
Best (I Guess): No Hell in a Cell
You know how I know you know something about professional wrestling, dear reader? Because you've heard good Ol' J.R. announce epic dunks, huge hits, and internet fails for years now. And chances are you probably watched the original video of the Undertaker vs. Mankind in Hell in a Cell. If you haven't, here's that memorable scene.
What made this match so memorable wasn't the novelty of the cage; it had been around in a similar form for some time, most prominently as part of WCW's WarGames gimmick match. And the violence that is so easily lent to the caged environment had become far less jarring with the continued evolution and prominence of lesser-known federations such as ECW, which had co-opted the "hardcore" style previously found in Japan and (to a lesser extent) Mexico and Latin America. No, what made these early Hell in a Cell matches iconic was the escalating brutality they displayed. In the first, Shawn Michaels took a for-then rough bump to the floor, but it was still pretty controlled and "safe", basically Michaels jumping from the cage onto a free-cut table. But when the Undertaker battled Mankind, any reservations or sense of self-preservations were thrown out the window. Watch the video again, and see Mick Foley dive off that cage onto the floor. When Ross cried out that Foley was likely dead, you could hear real concern in his voice. We were still a year away from Owen Hart's tragic death during a pay-per-view making this kayfabe fear a reality, but this was still a grown fan flying off the top of a 20+ foot cage onto the concrete floor of an arena. It was both terrific theatre and terrifying spectacle, and the fact Mick Foley continues to show the lasting effects of this and other, similarly-brutal matches cannot be forgotten.
Last year's game felt like Gardner was flung from the top of the cage. We semi-joke around here about his ribs being crushed by MSU and that "breaking" him, but it was terrifying to watch and made me legitimately question whether or not referees should be allowed to pull a player for his safety. The fact Gardner kept getting up was courageous in a sense, but at some point you just wished he had stayed down and everyone just go home. But in a sad testament to the season thus far, I didn't think Gardner suffered nearly as much against a ferocious MSU front. Yes he was sacked twice and hit a half-dozen more times, but it looked like a normal 2014 game, not a life-changing evisceration on national TV. It was your typical slobberknocker between these two teams, and if we are looking for a silver lining at all, everybody seemed to leave the game with all of their bones and organs in the same general place.
Worst: So Close
This is Michigan's gameplan in a single gif. They had halfway-decent field position on a couple of drives, and moved the ball in fits and spurts. But every time they had the hint of momentum, they'd go for an ill-fated flea-flicker, or fail to execute a simple bubble screen, or just run the damn ball on 2nd-and-9 for 1 yard and waste any opportunity to keep the game close. It was infuriating, it was depressing, it was par the course for the year.
Worst: Running Gardner
I saw a number of people arguing for Gardner to be more involved in the running game, the logical argument being that while his passing wasn't working well against MSU's stout defense (13/28 for 121 with 2 picks - including on pick-6), he likely would have been more effective running the ball compared to the rest of the team (which if you squint kinda came within the ballpark of 100 yards total). And maybe in another world, with actual QB depth and a coherent offensive plan, I'd agree with you.
But we've seen the backups for UM at the QB position - Morris isn't close to running this team, and Bellomy has looked lost every time he's been asked to do anything with this team. This game was lost as soon as the two teams had the coin flip, but (in theory) Michigan has a chance to finish 6-6 and make a bowl game with very winnable games against NW, IU, and Maryland coming up. But if Gardner goes down and is replaced by either of his most-likely backups, the team might as well not get off the bus. And though I'm absolutely of the belief that Hoke should be gone, he's still being paid to win games for the University of Michigan, and he is going to make decisions that will maximize his ability to do so. That means keeping Devin Gardner as healthy as possible, and in a game where MSU was going to be teeing off on him at every opportunity, exposing Gardner to any more damage in a lost game didn't make a whole lot of sense.
Worst: Saving Timeouts
It was beyond infuriating to watch Brady Hoke allow MSU to run a good 40 seconds off the gameclock to end the half before scoring their second TD to push the game to 14-3. With MSU needing about a quarter of a yard on 3rd down, Hoke allowed MSU to run the play clock down before plunging forward for a score. Even if UM stops MSU at that point and the Spartans kick a FG, a couple TOs used there conserves clock and gives UM a chance to at least get within long FG range. But with a full complement of TOs, Hoke let the clock burn down, ran for a couple of yards on the last play of the half, and went into halftime with three timeouts and nothing to show for them.
I guess you could argue Hoke wanted to see if his defense could hold MSU without giving the Spartans a chance to consult on 3rd down, or that he didn't want to expose his beleaguered offense to another set of downs that could lead to a turnover or some other misfortune. Those are all theories with merit in a vacuum. But this is Brady Hoke and Michigan in 2014, and that this point try to win the F*CKING GAME and squeeze one more possession out of the game. You'd already gotten a couple of gifts in that first half; any shred of confidence you could hang your hat on went out the window when you basically told your offense you'd rather regroup than try to matriculate the ball down the field in a minute. Still...
Worst: Hoke is the Worst A.I. Ever
Punting on fourth and three down 25 with nine minutes left. Fucking quitter. — mgoblog (@mgoblog) October 25, 2014
This might be semantics, but I don't think Hoke is a quitter. He's (sadly) calling the game the same way in the 1st quarter as he is in the 4th quarter. He's like the worst movie version of artificial intelligence. He doesn't learn from the past, he doesn't integrate new information into his plans, he isn't becoming sentient, and he sure as hell isn't turning the world's electronics against the humans. He's a mediocre football coach who seems unwilling to break out of his gameplan to any meaningful degree, and that's why all of these losses feel the same. With a lead he's maybe willing to take a couple of chances, but when he's down its all huddling, predictable pass plays, and punting for field position. He's not trying to "look good" for his bosses or nab a "moral" victory; he's just coaching like Brady Hoke at Michigan. Now, the fact that this style resembles a guy who is over his head and failed to install anything resembling a consistent, sustainable identity is another matter.
They gave up 446 yards, 4.8 yards a rush, busted on a 70-yard TD pass, and never made life too uncomfortable for Connor Cook. At the same time, they played 29 minutes of the first half, forced a couple of turnovers to keep the game close, stopped MSU on 4th down, and for long stretches of the game looked competent despite missing a number of rotation/starters. I know the raw numbers say otherwise, but it did feel like the defense was up to the challenge of today's game, and had the offense been able to sustain anything in that first half the game might have been a bit closer. I'm not saying there would have been an upset, but for a defense that hasn't caught a break all year, the turnovers in particular were a welcome reprieve from the muck and, had they been capitalized on better, might have kept the game more competitive.
Longer-term, it doesn't really matter what Mattison and his coordinators do going forward. Like Hoke, they are gone in a couple of weeks, so complaints about coverages, line play, RPS, etc. are kinda irrelevant. I could see a world in which Nussmeier is retained due to his relative newness to the program and the expertise of the coach coming in, but Mattison is going to ride into the sunset with Hoke. He'll leave having improved Michigan's defense significantly from RR's time, but not to the level people expected after 2011 and, frankly, what was needed to keep this team competitive.
[EDIT: Put this in comments section below, figured I'd add it here for completeness]
Best: IU Defense - The Best Gift a Sport Could Give
So my daughter is celebrating her first birthday next week. Since she's been born, Michigan has basically lost every meaningful game and looked like a steaming crater of tires covered in bird shit. So that's not a good thing. But what IS a good thing is that they are playing Indiana, and with all due respect to Jamie Mac, I'm pretty excited to see Michigan get a chance to put the spurs to a bad defense for once. It won't make up for the past 12 months, but it will give me something else to smile about, and would be a perfect gift for this little Wolverine-in-training.