it's a major award
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.
Best: Go Blue
After the game, one of the ESPN sideline reporters caught up with Devin Gardner and asked him about the game, in particular him playing under macro (his coach likely being fired, the "boycott", the general discontent of the fans) and well as micro pressure (ankle injury, tough PSU defense). After the usual player-speak of "I had to to be out there", "The team still believes in me/each other", "It's good to get the win", and the always-badass "I can hurt later", he talked about looking forward to playing MSU in two weeks and ended the conversation with the most loaded "Go Blue" I can remember.
I don't need to go into the gory details about Gardner's time at UM; you've heard these stories numerous times before, "hot takes" about his failings and odes to his greatness are legion in these parts: He's a winner except when he's throwing crippling INTs or struggling to hold onto the ball under intense pressure, or a maddeningly inconsistent QB who never learned how to play the position due to a revolving-door of disinterested/ill-equipped offensive coaches and whose success typically comes from being a better athlete than the guys chasing him and/or a healthy bit of luck sprinkled with defensive incompetence. He's off-the-charts when it comes to feelingsball and playing hurt, but through 7 games this year he's throwing more INTs (8) than TDs (6), and his team is 3-4 with one semi-competent win. He's everything you want in a QB but with just enough rough edges and blemishes that you can't enjoy it. He can wear whatever hat you want, can both prove and invalidate any argument, and at all times fit into a narrative without being attached to it. Heck, against Miami I called him "Chaotic Neutral", and even now I'm not sure if that should be considered a compliment or a condemnation; it's probably just a statement of fact.
But what I think we all forget about these players are that they are human. Yes, they're "human" in the way that they can hear the boos, maybe feel a little under siege with the tempest engulfing the program, and all the other discussion points we've heard these past couple of weeks regarding the way fans are interacting with the program. But when I say they are "human", I mean they are human in the sense that they are so absolutely too old for this shit and just want to win games and move on to the next challenge. Like everyone reading this blog, at some point in your life every take has been taken, every thing you need to bring has been broughten, and every question has been answered. You are done with it because this is life and you need to move on, and leave the hand-wringing and intense discussions to those on the sidelines.
When Gardner said "Go Blue", he said it like a man who had just endured 3 hours of teeth pulling without Novocain, a QB who played on a bad leg for over a quarter while consistently pulling Mike Hull and the rest of the PSU defense out of his teeth. He was a semi-movable target out there, and PSU took every chance they had to tee him up. It's fashionable around these parts to talk about "soul" dong punches after a bad series or a tough loss, but that's all metaphorical and for effect, as a case of the "grumpies" and drinking a bit too much is pretty self-inflicted. As the announcers reminded us seemingly every free second in the fourth quarter, Gardner finished the OSU game last year with effectively a broken foot, and has endured numerous other undiagnosed/unreleased injuries in his 2+ years as QB1; his soul dong probably hurts after losses, along with his ribs, ankles, shoulders, and every other part of his actual body. He was hurting, but the pain was in service to a goal that was met, so it at least felt validated. It was pain leaving the body for at least a moment, replaced with the healing light of victory.
He also said "Go Blue" with a hint of resignation, or at least an understanding that for as long as he can physically stand, he's the best chance this team has to win this year. We talk about looking toward the future seasons and player development, but that's the perspective born from the one-way relationship of fandom. I'm 33 years old; I'll be a fan of Michigan football until the day I die because the only expiration on my fandom is my beating heart. As fans, we don't get replaced if we don't cheer loud enough, or run out of eligibility after 4 years. We can decide how much we care about the program and the team, and can look to the future secure in the knowledge that while the names on the jerseys will change, our seats in front of the TV or in the stadium won't. But for Gardner, he's got (at best) 6 more games donning the maize and blue, and he's going to do whatever it takes to win each and every one of them, depth chart and future coaching changes be damned. And after seeing guys like Morris and Bellomy struggle immensely to even complete a pass, he's the last line of defense between UM being competitive against the rest of the teams on the schedule and being nothing more than the winningest Baby Seal U in the Big 10.
And finally, that "Go Blue" had the distinctive tone of "F**k You" that usually is reserved for B-Rabbit against Papa Doc. And yeah, it had a bit of the cliche "FU to the doubters/the haters", "nobody believed in us", "how you like dem apples?" that you see in every movie and every NFL Films "mic up" of a defensive player in the huddle. Gardner, more than any other player save maybe Taylor Lewan, has been the lighting-rod for the team's struggles under Hoke, and even though that's part of the deal with being the QB it still must be draining to read and hear people (mostly anonymously) question your heart, your talent, you ability to win. So yeah, winning a tough game under the lights is a metaphorical middle finger. But it also had the distinctive F U tone to the world, to the gypsies that keep taking down players, to the incompetent play reviews and tipped passes, to cornerbacks phasing in and out of Earth-2 on long passes down the sideline, to 27-for-27, to everything bad that has happened over the years. It's Gardner looking out over the sea of fans, the joyous look on the faces of his teammates reveling in their first win in nearly a month, into the cameras of the media finally not probing for dissension or escapees from the sinking UM ship but to chronicle a gutsy win, and feeling that he survived. It's Gardner telling the world "I'm still Fucking Here, this team's still Fucking Here" and meaning it.
Go Blue. Go MF'ing Blue!
Best: Semi-Competent Win
Last week I considered it an improvement that Michigan lost to Rutgers in a semi-conventional manner, as opposed to being thoroughly outclassed in embarrassing fashion like they had against Minnesota, Utah, and Notre Dame. So consider this a slight improvement on that performance helped by the random number generator giving UM the win. The team finally beat a Power 5 team, and even though you could fill a dump truck with caveats about that fact, it was still a good win and a nice way to go into the break before the real "meat" of the schedule kicks in.
Best: Second-Half Defense
Watching PSU's first two drives felt like a portal to watching UM's recent offensive struggles, where the unit seems to be chugging along until they get 20-30 yards out and then everything bogs down and they leave with FGs (if that) instead of TDs. Under RR, MSU in 2010 jumps to mind, and under Hoke pick your loss the past couple of seasons. PSU was using tempo effectively, seemed to discover some semblance of a running game with a lot of sweeps and delayed runs inside (helped by some suspect tackling), and Hackenberg was throwing the ball quickly and effectively to Hamilton and James. But once they got to the red zone, Michigan's defense stiffened enough to hold PSU to field goals, and you could sense that UM had taken PSU's best punches in the first half and they were kinda out of options after that. In fact, after Gardner's INT gave them great position to take the lead at 13-7, PSU didn't have a drive longer than 27 yards the rest of the way, with 3 drives winding up in negative territory.
It helped that PSU seemed unable to block anybody for more than 3 seconds and absolutely played into Mattison's blitz-friendly schemes, but any time you hold an offense to under 100 yards in a half you have (a) fallen through a wormhole and are playing 2013 Michigan, and (b) done a pretty good job on your defense. And yes, I know this is a Penn State team showing the effects of sanctions, but Michigan was without a number of defensive players themselves and reeling from giving up 404 yards to Gary Nova, so 214 yards of total offense given up is something I think everyone will take.
Meh: The Almost Hail Mary
I know the general sentiment was that Hoke should have just let the half run out when PSU was facing 4th-and-1 from their own 39 instead of letting them line up for a Hail Mary, but I honestly didn't have an issue with the call. If anything, I wished he had called a TO after the previous completion and saved a couple of seconds. PSU had shown themselves unable to keep Hackenberg clean for more than a couple of seconds, and the threat of a 60+ yard completion seemed minimal especially if Michigan planned on bringing 4. If PSU elects to punt, then you give yourself a chance on a return (as unlikely as that is given the dinosaur punting formations) or you can pin your ears back and go for the block, because at best that moves PSU forward a bit but takes time off the clock. If Franklin decides to throw it up, then a million things can happen, most of them either inconsequential or bad for PSU, and would give you another chance to rattle a QB who had come up holding his arm earlier in the series and was a little jumpy due to breakdowns in protection.
Yes, there's a chance you get Kordell Stewart'd, why the heck not try to squeeze another possession out in a game (Michigan gets the ball to start the half) that was shaping up to be a defensive struggle.
Best: Thanks For (Fake) Punting
Another week, another dumb attempt at a fake punt. Last week it was Rutgers calling a good fake and then executing a throw that may still be in the air. This week it was PSU running the most obvious fake punt run (at UM's 37! Seriously!!) and UM sniffing it out almost immediately. This decision came on the heels of the previous game between MSU and Purdue, where MSU failed on their fake punt on their own 29 and Purdue turned what was a semi-comfortable 14-point game to a way-less-comfortable 7-point game.
I get the desire to extend possessions and capitalize on the general malaise and predictability of B1G teams, but when they blow up they do so spectacularly, and for once UM seems to be the beneficiary.
Best: I'm Calling Shotgun
They showed this last week as well, but it felt like Michigan's offense operated far more heavily out of the shotgun this week than in earlier games, and it absolutely helped to keep Gardner (reasonably) clean. PSU isn't known as a great pass-rushing outfit, but Gardner was only sacked 3 times, and one was basically Gardner tucking the ball and running. They even tried running the ball a bit out of the formation with Smith and Hayes, and while the results weren't great by any stretch, it did seem like the offense moved the ball most effectively when Gardner has a chance to survey the field and keep an eye on the rush.
This new approach clearly helped the passing offense, as both Funchess and Darboh made a number of nice catches within the offense, with Darboh keeping drives alive in the first quarter and Devin snagging a lob-ish pass for a TD because, well, being 6'5" and super-fast lets you do that. As for Gardner's INT, it was a combination of him trying a bit too hard to get the screen set up to Smith and Braden failing to keep his hands on Zettel. Had Zettel been engaged with Braden (it was clear that he was reading the screen by that point), he probably wouldn't have been able to get his hands up. It's a tough situation for everyone, but it was as much a great, athletic play by Zettel as it was a failure by the offense.
Of course, having proved its efficacy this week, I fully expect UM to go under center exclusively against MSU, maybe with a sprinkling of the triple option where every run is Gardner into the line.
Norfleet broke the Michigan record for kickoff return yardage in this game, and while it still remains frustrating to watch him nearly break so many returns back there without actually scoring, it's a testament to his abilities that he's been able to set the record after only 2.5-ish years of playing time. Yeah, the usual jokes about "he's had lots of opportunities" (a record 86 attempts so far) is obviously an indictment of the team's struggles these past couple of years, but for the first time since Breaston was manning the kick-off team it's felt like UM has a weapon back there (I know Stonum took one back against ND). Hopefully one of these returns will hit pay dirt.
Worst: Stop Trying so Hard
First off - it wasn't 27-for-27 (31-for-64 is, I guess, an improvement) and the team won, so take this complaint with a grain of sad, "I guess this is where we are that averaging 2 ypc is a victory" grain of salt. But it was annoying to watch the running game struggle against a statistically-stout PSU rush offense the way it did. I understand that Smith's and Hayes's first goal was to minimize negative yards, and they largely accomplished that (only 7 lost yards on the day) while not turning the ball over or otherwise endangering the offense.
That said, I'm starting to get a little bothered by the backs in this offense struggling to read holes that ARE there and seemingly looking for the homerun instead. In particular Smith always stutter-stopped before diving into the line, robbing him of momentum and turning maybe 3-4 yard runs into 1 or 2-yarders because the defense flowed to him. This is an extreme frame of reference I know, but having watched Barry Sanders growing up I've seen backs probe the line at multiple points, looking for that glimmer of daylight. But that's shoot one of the top 5 running backs in the history of college and professional football doing that, with an elite combination of speed and balance as well as an incredibly low center of gravity. Smith bouncing at the line may look like Hart, but Hart was also able to squeeze in between blockers and scrape out a couple of yards where none were there. If Smith is going to receive the lion's share of the carries going forward, he's going to need to continue to take the yards the defense is giving him and be more decisive in his cuts. I hope he'll get there this year, but given Fred Jackson's recent track record you have to wonder if it will happen behind this line.
Worst: Not Very Sneaky
In recent games, Michigan's response to 3rd- and 4th-and-short downs is the "up-tempo" QB sneak. Objectively, it's not a bad playcall when you have an athletic, tall QB who can also audible out and run to the corner if necessary. But I have two issues with its deployment in games. First, if you do it EVERY DOWN, teams figure it out, and this line (and Miller in particular) isn't designed to bulldoze tackles and linebackers back the requisite yard or two you need. Second, trotting it out when you need 2 or 3 yards is probably more than you can expect in any context. I'm all for using a quick play to catch the defense off-guard in situations like this, but a little diversity such as a Gardner run to the outside or a quick pass to the TE would do wonders to keeping it effective.
Worst: Inanity of the Announcers
I know that ESPN is all about narratives and storytelling during a game, but these announcer went that extra mile and just started rambling about inconsequential and/or irrelevant stories about the "issues" surrounding Brad Hoke and Michigan when a f'ing game was going on. Save that for the video packages and bumpers coming out of time outs and halftime, but a couple of times Gilmore would just start talking about the boycott, protestors, Morris's concussion, whatever in between downs and it felt like there was someone in his ear feeding him lines.
In particular, the story he relayed about being in the elevator with Franklin and a Michigan "fan" before the game and the fan telling Franklin that he wanted PSU to beat UM so that they could fire Hoke. Not only was that the type of story that really didn't serve a purpose (I'm sure that a fan who said he/she supported Hoke and wanted to beat PSU wouldn't have warranted a mention), but it simply reiterated a tired story that didn't need "dramatic, real-life" examples to drive home. Michigan was 2-4, there had been protests on campus, people were talking about "boycotting" this game for whatever that amounted to, etc. Michigan's tire fire has been one of the leading stories in college sports for weeks now; there have been a wealth of examples already as to the dysfunction. To their credit, as the game progressed these non-sequiters shifted away to other topics (I particularly liked the sarcastic claim that Ole Miss/Miss St. deserved the SEC "respect" rub because of their storied histories and tough OOC games), but it was still maddening to be watching the game and listening to the worst parts of sports radio.
Also, for the person in that elevator...
Worst: WTF Elevator Person!
You are the worst. Absolutely the worst. I don't give a shit if you are unhappy with the state of this team. Trust me, most people are. But when you are in the elevator with the head coach of the other team, don't tell him you are rooting for his team to beat "your" team. Not only is that incredibly disrespectful to the team and makes you look like a dumbass - you might as well pick another team to root for in you want the current one to lose. But it is also INCREDIBLY near-sighted in a practical sense. Michigan's athletic department and coaching situation can charitably be defined as a "tire fire", and losing more and more games does nothing more than throw shit on that burning graveyard of rubber. So now you've got a combination of burning shit AND rubber to deal with, which will absolutely make it even less appealing to the small number of head coaching candidates likely available at the end of the year. Recruits are going to continue to leave in droves, fan support will dwindle, current players will be demoralized and attrition may take place, and Michigan's battered reputation nationally will only get further dinged.
I can't change your opinions about the current football team, and frankly it isn't worth my time. But at the very least, keep your damn mouth shut and lie about it in situations like this. Think about it as practice for the time in a couple of years when you tell your friends you've been a "true" Michigan fan and never stopped rooting for them, you ass.
The Washington Generals of football, the Fighting Bye Weeks, will be town. I'm predicting a close win for the good guys.
As for MSU, I don't know man (sorry Brian). They're probably the best team in the conference. They also have struggled to put away teams not playing in the MAC this year. The defense looks good but no other-worldly, but this game has been circled for weeks and I suspect MSU will be juiced up for it. IU might be the beneficiary of this, as MSU's secondary has looked shaky and they could well be looking past the Hoosiers, so who knows if Michigan will be going to East Lansing to face a reeling Spartan squad or not. Regardless, it'll be a slobber-knocker, and right now I don't see how UM emerges victorious unless they play a near-perfect game.
[EDIT] You know it's been a long season since this was originally titled "Maryland". Just banking these beforehand, I guess[/EDIT]
One of these days I'm going to put in less work on writing these than the coaching staff did in preparing for the game. They just keep setting the bar so low, though.
Best: Semi-competent loss
It's come to this, hasn't it. Not moral victories or BS like that, but after being destroyed by a cadre of mid-level BCS teams and Notre Dame, Michigan finally looked semi-competitive against another BCS team. And Rutgers is at least a bowl team, something Michigan sure isn't right now. I always figured Michigan would have a close loss like this during the year, but the expectation was that it would be a rare occurrence of bad luck and incompetence instead of, I guess, a sign of growth and competence in year 4.
Ugh. Moving on.
Worst: Reset Doesn't Exist
I recently finished reading Console Wars, a sometimes-laborious-but-interesting read about the history of Sega, Nintendo, and (a little bit of) Sony and the video game industry they helped revive in the 80s and 90s. It has its flaws from a narrative perspective, but what it does highlight so well is the evolution of video games from quarter-eating arcade cabinets in pizza parlors and movie theaters to the multi-billion dollar industry have now, spurred on by improvements in technology as well as creativity and game design. The book doesn't go into great detail, but another major innovations was the idea of continued gameplay, of "saves" that allowed players to start the game back up from an earlier time but not having to reset from the beginning. It made the games more fun and allowed more immersion in the narrative; the player had a history with the game and so by starting around the same place later on, that connection wasn't lost through the redundancy of replaying previously conquered levels. And during the game, when everything went to hell, you could return to an earlier, better state and try it again. Suddenly, every misstep wasn't, well...
And this advance brought along some quirks. As a kid who grew up in the era of NES/Genesis/SNES cartridge rentals from Blockbuster Video, it was always a bit of a mixed bag when picked up a game for the weekend. If you were lucky, some guy was 3/4 of the way done with A Link to the Past and you could see how the game ended; if not, you had a cartridge with a busted save battery and you had better hope your mom never turns off Secret of Mana for the weekend (And yes, I know you can always start a new game, but 8-year-old me wasn't above using a leg up if it was presented). But if you did continue an earlier game, you were implicitly endorsing the decisions, and repercussions of those actions, from the player(s) before you. Yeah, Cecil Harvey may be totally powered up, but he's also rolling with a Mage and not an awesome Thief, and there's no easy way to correct for that. It's great to have a chance to influence the future, but it comes with all the history and baggage that you had nothing to do with but now informs all of your decisions going forward.
I'm not going to comment much on the past week; I've said my piece about my issues with the tenor of the movement but I agree that change is necessary going forward; win out or lose out, Hoke and Brandon can't both be here in 2015. Practically speaking the coach being let go is easier but probably more damaging, at least in the short term, because the costs of the transition are so high (coach search, player attrition, recruiting, etc.), especially for a program that seems to have been paying them for 8 years now. Hoke is most likely over his head, but he has pieces of a good staff and I still hold that his ceiling is a competent program that wins 8-9 games a year; considering where the sad state the team has been for years, that would be considered a massive improvement. He isn't a long-term solution, but he can be a nice transitional coach to the next hire and helps make UM way more appealing than the tire fire it is right now. Getting rid of Brandon, though, is holistically much better for the school and has a less direct effect on individual teams, not just football, and would help quell the masses to a greater degree than just bringing in a new guy to run the football team. I'm not sure, though, if the school administration is ready for such a heady task given the fact Schlissel is new the job himself and seems less interested in dealing with athletics than Bollinger and Coleman before him. And has been pointed out a couple times already, how do we know he's not going to pick an equally-bad replacement for Brandon.
Regardless of how the next stage in Michigan athletics plays out in the coming months, the incoming parties are going to walking into a situation that is as fractured and toxic as I've seen in all my years following Michigan athletics. People talk about 2007 as a bad environment, but that was mostly tied to wins and losses by the football team; nobody marched through campus because Carr lost to Appalachian State. RR wasn't made to feel particularly welcomed by some of the purported old guard, but Michigan fans had not yet welcomed this little guy into their lives, so spirits were still reasonably high.
|I'll just set my bags on down over here|
When Hoke arrived in 2010 the program was mired in its first sustained stretch of struggles both on and off the field in most fans' lives, but there was still optimism that with a new AD (remember how much we loved Dave Brandon? Ah, it was a simpler time when "You may resume your unbreakable faith in David Brandon's pimp hand." rang true) and Hoke was so Not Rich Rod, and that feeling only intensified with that 2011 season and the solid recruiting that followed.
But now? Unless the new head coach's name begins with "Jim Harbaugh" and ends with "combined with John Harbaugh to create Mecha-Harbaugh", it isn't going to be pretty. Michigan fans have already lived through the hot-shot outsider as well as the "program" guy accepted by the old guard; the next coach isn't going to be able to play either card, and it's a pretty small deck to begin with. This site has chronicled a number of the top candidates, and I've heard everyone from the improbably (Miles) to the gotta-be-trolling impossible (Tressel, Narduzzi). Obviously winning quick and consistently will be the most important, but the next leader of Michigan football is going to have to do it largely without the benefit of the doubt, or at least show marked improvement early on to the bulk of a fanbase burned out by sustained "growing pains".
The environment around this program is terrible, and while change is a necessary antiseptic, it doesn't wipe away the damage already done. The Michigan "brand" is junk right now; Brian spoke about how "THIS ISN'T MICHIGAN" as it relates to the handling of Morris's injury, but what IS MICHIGAN is a bunch of pissed off fans and students angry not just at the current administration but the world. People have their multitudinous reasons for supporting this team, but most of the fandom is rooted heavily in Michigan's consistent winning (and consistency and stability overall) for over a century. It hasn't always been an elite program, but a consistent plugger with occasional spurts of greatness is still high praise, and the program has historically been above the muck and grime that has marred most of other schools (the sanctions passed down because of the Freep "investigation" stung even more because they were the first in Michigan's football history).
Michigan isn't a "winner" anymore. It's not the home of the "Leaders and the Best" anymore either; it's the home of retreads and sycophants, administrative incompetence, wasted potential, and empty suits looking for fireworks and empty headsets not knowing how a clock works. That doesn't mean Michigan is doomed to mediocrity, as every new coach and AD means another chance at redemption and a return to the school's place in the upper-echelon of college sports. But the road back is getting longer and longer, and every step back by the current regime is just another one the next guys need to retake. Player development will likely regress and will need additional attention, recruiting will struggle a bit as different offensive and defensive systems require different players while (hopefully) integrating the current ones as best as possible, and new coaching philosophies will need to be conveyed to college kids who will need to forget what they've been taught for years.
It isn't going to be pretty, and barring a miracle, it is going to take time. The next coach is going to be taking over for a guy who wasted a bunch of goodwill and resources on "toughness" without focus, and the next AD is going to inherit a jaded fanbase that feels ignored and abused by a guy who thought fireworks, noodles, and bitchy emails were good business practices. But unlike in video games, these men and women don't have the option to hit reset, and because of that we need to be patient as they figure out what level they're on and why they don't have any more mana.
Hoke mentioned in the post-game press conference about the resiliency of the team, and it is hard to deny that the team didn't fall apart like it had in previous weeks. Part of that was undoubtedly due to Rutgers being Rutgers and failing to convert on a couple of long drives in the second half, but Michigan didn't let Rutgers run away after that late halftime score, and answered right back after the Knights took a 26-17 lead. And after forcing Rutgers to punt following Michigan's last score, it looked like a team that could absolutely pull out a close win on the road. It's still Rutgers, but given the team's struggles under Hoke it would have been a pretty substantial win.
In particular, I think we should all recognize the performance put forth by Devin Gardner. A week after being benched and basically throw onto the scrap heap, and facing a solid pass rush behind a leaky line, he performed admirably. That interception was pretty terrible and he had a couple of other throws that were off or thrown into double or triple coverage, but he also kept plays alive with his feet, and when the offense belatedly started to run most plays out of the shotgun looked a bit like his old self. It wasn't enough to win, but this performance put into even starker contrast the lunacy of last week and playing Shane Morris. It also, sadly, shows just how much trouble the offense is probably going to be in next year unless the line becomes markedly better. Gardner kept drives alive with his mobility and slowed down the pass rush a but, but without an established run game a less mobile QB like Morris would have been flattened early and often.
Worst: I Don't Understand Reviews Anymore
The refs were all over the map in this game; Michigan had 3 holding calls where probably only one was bang-bang, while Rutgers got called for 2(!) hands-to-the-face calls on defense and 3 personal fouls though not a single holding call despite Willie Henry basically carrying a Rutgers guy on his back a couple of times. Michigan also received a gift spot on a 2nd-down run by Smith that sure seemed to be stopped short and didn't get called for a facemask on a Gary Nova sack.
But that clusterf*ck on Darboh's 3rd-down play takes the cake. Hoke should have challenged the spot instead of calling a TO and then challenging, but given how he handles normal game situations that shouldn't surprise anyone. That said, everyone who saw that play except the video reviewers thought it was a catch, and it was weird seeing the catch be overruled by the referee who seemed farthest away from the play. We've seen tons of those types of sideline catches count before, and if anything Darboh made it look worse because he inexplicably tried to reach out for the first down after he was past the sideline and the ball popped on when it hit the ground.
I know, I know, Michigan deserves blame for playing so poorly that they needed that break late in the game, but it was still a bad call. And it put Michigan is a tough spot where they had to either try a 56-yard kick (which had about a 2% chance of working against a team that leads the country in blocked kicks) or going for it on 4th-and-8. Personally I would have tried to get the first over taking such a long shot, but neither option was appealing.
|It was either this or Liz Phair|
So yeah, pass defense kinda sucked this game. I know they were down Peppers to start and lost Jeremy Clark in the second half, but this was still a terrible performance by the defense given the fact that Gary f'ing Nova was the opposing QB. True, a couple of his throws were the type that happen against good coverage, but far too often Rutger WRs and TEs had 2-3 yard cushions on short passes, allowing them to either break tackles for extra yardage or even just fall down for the first. This was especially true on 3rd down, where Rutgers converted 8 of 16. Normally you'd say "50% conversion rate isn't horrible", but when you are allowing Rutgers to get to 16 3rd downs on only 10 meaningful drives, it also means you aren't kicking them off the field much either. Rutgers had 3 drives of 10 or more plays, and all of them featured multiple 3rd-down conversions. To make matters worse, the ghost of GERG had apparently been awaken from its eternal slumber, as a number of these conversions were on 3rd and long. Early in the 2nd quarter it was Gary Nova juking Bolden for 20 yards on 3rd-and-16 deep in Rutgers territory, and later it was a 26-yard pickup on 3rd-and-9 and a very simple dink-and-dunk for 7 yards on 3rd-and-4. Ultimately those drives ended in punts, but in a close game the loss of field position was felt immensely.
The passiveness shown in coverage remains troubling for a number of reasons, but most especially because there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason for when it is deployed. Sometimes corners line up 2 yards off the receiver on 1st down, and then on 4th down and 3 yards Ramon Taylor is giving a WR oodles of real estate; only saving the conversion because of a nice hit that threw Grant off a bit as the ball arrived. The seams are constantly open, and even though the windows may be small they exist so consistently in coverage that most QBs can hit them with regularity. It's feels like in Madden when you just let the computer pick the defense and they settle on some generic cover-2 that doesn't really matter to you because you are always rushing from the outside with JJ Watt. Unfortunately, the pass rush isn't getting there and all that cushion is inviting lots of short completions with copious YAC. There are still some great playcalls and performances at times, but the pass defense again seems like a B+ outfit on a team that expects/needs an A performance every week.
Playcalling arguments given, this in no way overshadows the insanity of Gary "Wrecking Ball" Nova throwing for record-setting yardage. It's a cheap CS joke, but I looked up the number and I couldn't find it anywhere on the internet. And it was a holistic failure by the defense; everyone will point out that Countess was burned on the 80-yarder to Turzill and failed to stay with Tsimis on the score to end the half, but this entire secondary has 1 interception and that courtesy of a duck by Miami. The linebackers get lost in coverage far too often, the defensive line can't generate consistent pass rush, and the safeties are so thin and inexperienced save for Wilson that they either dive toward the line too quickly or play too tentatively and let too much happen in front of them. I'm sure not having a guy who actually played/coached the secondary previously trying to install a very intricate defense doesn't help, but (not to sound cliche) sometimes players just need to make plays. I don't know the exact defensive playcalls or how these kids are being coached, but I kinda of doubt it entails trailing WRs for 4 yards or biting on double moves every time. It is particularly jarring to see a senior like Countess, who coming into the season looked like a competent DB at worst, seem absolutely lost out there. And while we cam talk about his lack of closing speed or ability to stay with speedy receivers, but he obviously was able to hold up reasonably well (Lockett aside) until this year. It's likely a combination of confusion amongst the players and learning a new system that isn't expertly understood by the staff, but a game like this should not happen.
Worst: I HATE Prevent Defenses
Now, I recognize that there are many different types of formations and playcalls at the end of the half that are designed to bleed clock in exchange for yardage, but this year's defense seems absolutely incapable of closing out a half without giving up points. Last week Minnesota marched down the field for a late score, Utah marched down 54 yards in 16(!) plays for a 38-yard FG, Notre Dame before that scored an incredibly easy TD in about 50 seconds to really pull away at the half of that game, and now Rutgers went on an interminable 11 play, 75-yard TD drive in 1:21 (!!) to take the lead right after UM had surged ahead. It was a weird drive to be sure, but Michigan just kept conceding yardage without putting much pressure on Nova, and even when they did get a free blitzer (Frank Clark on 3rd-and-goal), Nova got free and threw the TD. All four of those drives had a huge impact on the games, and it isn't too much a stretch to say that each of those games could have turned out differently had Michigan had held without giving up points.
The team's close management at the end of halves is stupefying, and it further magnifies how terrible UM is at tempo that multiple teams can run up and down the field on them at pace while Michigan can barely run a 2-minute offense in 4. There is a fine line between aggressiveness and recklessness on defense, but Michigan is far behind that line on the passive side that it is killing whatever chances they have to enter halftime with any sense of momentum.
Worst: Fungible Funchess
No to be the bearer of bad news to the coaching staff, but (a) they aren't going to be around next year, and (b) even if they are, Devin Funchess probably isn't. So I see no reason why they continue to "save" him during long stretches of this game. Funchess had 3 catches in the first quarter and then had 2 catches in the 4th quarter, with the only substantial one being a 17-yarder on the last drive for Michigan hat got them deep-ish into Rutgers territory. Funchess is probably a bit hurt and teams are obviously shifting their coverage to him, but no corner on the Rutgers sideline is taller than 6 feet, or 1/2 a foot shorter than Devin. What's the worst that is going to happen if you just throw it up to him - you already had micro-Megatron with Hemingway in 2011 and that worked out swimmingly.
Only MSU and maybe ND and Minnesota have secondaries that should be able to keep up with Funchess, and yet every non-Appalachian State team has been able to bottle him up reasonably well. I'm sure Funchess will explode for 200 yards against OSU when the team is 4-7, but it feels like a waste of a supremely talented player.
I've made most of these complaints/observations before in other games. So here they are in short doses.
Best: Lollipop Fake Punts
Michigan caught one huge break when Rutgers called that fake punt in the second quarter. It was actually a good call, as Michigan was scrambling and allowed the punter to escape behind them to the other side of the field. What saved them, though, was the pass back to the punter with more hangtime than any of UM's punts in this game. You could see the Rutgers punter stare down the swarming Michigan players while the ball just hung in the air and just kind of concede defeat. It was glorious.
Best: The Defensive Line
I saw some internet tough guys calling out Frank Clark for failing to bring down Nova when he had a free-ish run at him to end the half, but otherwise I thought the line did reasonably well. It still can't generate consistent pressure (2 sacks notwithstanding), but it held Rutgers to just under 100 yards rushing if you excise sacks, and that includes the one 20-yard scramble by Nova alluded to before. They also blocked a PAT and generally looked competent with an effective rotation. It's not a dominant unit by any stretch, but it feels like the one part of the defense you can rely on to perform consistently every week.
Worst: Still Waiting
Neither Green nor Smith provided consistent performance in this game. Green averaged 6.2 ypc, but that number is goosed by a low number of carries (14) and two 20+ yard runs and not much else. Green had a great run on the first drive and then another good run on the last UM scoring drive, but that was about it. Smith had his moments and scored another TD, but he also looked indecisive at times and, like Green, didn't always identify the hole quickly. It led to a bunch of stutter-steps and change-of-directions that might work in high school but lead to minimal gains, at best, in college. Hayes continues to look plausible without being realistic, if that makes any sense. He'll get a nice run or short pass and flash some speed, but then you look at the stats and he's barely being used and most of his big runs/plays come on long downs where the defense is conceding some green. But both Green and Smith show just enough hints of explosiveness, of putting it together and being solid college running backs, that it is hard to give up on them yet and hope Isaac turns it around. It probably doesn't matter given the upcoming coaching changes, but this team desperately needs to establish some identity running the ball, or at least figure out what each guy is good at and try to get some run with that instead of this "back by committee" approach that doesn't seem to work for anyone. This is especially true with Gardner back there, as he forces the defense to stay honest and not commit defenders to stop the run so quickly.
Meh: The Offensive Line
This was a horrible matchup coming into the game, as Rutgers led the nation in sacks and Michigan's line led the nation in broken television sets, but they only gave up 3 sacks and the aforementioned holding calls were a mixed bag. Michigan was able to sustain drives unlike in weeks past, and I haven't seen a coach so excited/satisfied about a TD drive like Hoke was following Michigan's last score since I learned about the dangers of "pep pills."
At the same time, the line is a victim of its past at this point. You can see Gardner step back in the pocket and immediately start to worry about getting a helmet in the ribs. At least one of those sacks was a "coverage" sack because Gardner just gave up after his first option was covered and started looking to escape despite the fact he had time. The line is improving in fits and spurts, but at this point they've broken to QBs and I'm not sure how that will change between now and 2015.
Worst: Somebody Count for Gawd's Sake
Another week, another 10 guys on the punt team. At least this time it was a return, but it remains a bewildering problem for this team. I presume that people on the punt team know they are on the punt team. How about those 11 guys always run out on 4th down and let's see what happens. I swear at some point this year Will Hagerup is going to be on a bicycle behind the bench and nobody on the Michigan sideline is even going to notice.
PSU can't really defend all that well, can't block anyone's pass rush, can barely run the ball, and relies almost exclusively on Hackenberg keeping them in games with his arm. Plus they've looked pretty bad on the road. Thus, I fully expect Michigan to give up 500 yards through the air and for every cornerback to be burned on a double move by anyone in a white helmet. Last year's game was Hackenberg's coming-out party, and even without Robinson he looks competent when he gets time in the pocket, or as we like to say around here, Michigan's usual pass rush.
At the same time, Michigan is minus 13 on the year in terms of turnovers; they are bad but certainly not THAT bad. If there are 90,000 bodies in the stands it will be a miracle, but I suspect they'll be treated to (sadly) Michigan's last home win of the year. I want to be wrong about the year, but both IU and Maryland have good enough offenses to beat UM, and while I expect Michigan to not have too much trouble scoring, they probably won't be able to keep up. So this game is essential for any faint hopes of a bowl game, and I expect the team will rally under the lights.
This is going to be a little shorter than normal for a variety of reasons. Mostly because I have better things to do than rehash another ass-kicking, but also because I have a half-marathon on Sunday that I decided would be a good idea not training for and I want to enjoy my last couple of hours with functioning calves.
Worst: Caring is Creepy
I want to care. I really do. I want to look at barely 100 yards of total offense against Minnesota through 3 quarters, giving up 30 straight points, the pick-six, the continued dumb punting, everything and care. And the fact I'm going to write over 3,000 words about it probably means I still do in some way. But right now, man, I just don't know why I keep watching this team. I get that Brian and co. need to because this site pays the bills, but what's in it for fans like me who are supposed to derive pleasure from watching their alma mater line up every Saturday? As I've mentioned before, I have a young daughter, a beautiful wife, good health, and enough hobbies to keep me busy most weekends. And yet, even after Notre Dame. Even after Utah. Even after the last x number of years of watching Michigan football screw it up more times than not, in ever-more-agonizing fashion, I keep coming back.
I don't know anymore. I might keep writing these columns out of force of habit, but I don't know why it matters. Michigan is poofarting its way toward its 4th coach in 7 years, another 2 months of talk radio complaining, former players calling out the current administration, anonymous sources reporting Dave Brandon is out, is getting a raise, is wandering around Meijers at 2 in the morning trying to Synergize with valued consumers about their love for Michigan and Dr. Pepper.
This season is 5 games in and it feels like it's been going on 40 years, the saddest carousel just spinning around and around while little kids are bored and everyone just wants to get off and get on some other ride. Somebody commented in my last post that they wish I showed more emotion in these posts, that I write them about passion but don't display it. Well, this is what ennui looks and writes like. It's a broken guy who is looking at the screen and looking forward to apple picking next weekend with his family over watching his favorite team in the whole f'ing world get worked over by a commuter school in NJ because it means Cablevision might carry the B1G Network on its basic package instead of the extra "sports" one I pay for.
Worst: Compounded Stupidity
Shane Morris is trying his best out there, so I want it to be clear that I am not questioning him. But there is no reason in the world why he should have started this game if Gardner was even remotely healthy, and nothing in this game dispelled the notion for all of his failings, Gardner is the better QB for this particular team right now. Morris threw one pick-6 that was a combination of poor blocking and staring down a receiver as soon as they broke the huddle, but he also threw 2-3 more passes that probably should have been picked off. He also fumbled a ball for no particular reason, and after being injured early in the 3rd quarter was clearly moving in pain. Morris may be the answer, but certainly not to the questions surrounding this putrid offense.
(I'll leave claims of Morris possibly being concussed and still on the field for those with more information, because I wasn't there and we've seen many players take shots and bounce back up. Not to play devil's advocate, but it looked as much like Morris had the wind knocked out of him by that hit than he was concussed, and the fact he was taken out 2 plays later felt like a coaching staff realizing something more was up than a hit. Putting him in a couple of plays later for that handoff is obviously bad, and his fumbling with a response in the postgame didn't help anything. [EDIT] That said, Brady Hoke is many things, but it takes a pretty extreme jump in logic [admittedly, one that a certain subset of the fanbase is dying to make] to claim that he would knowingly endanger the health of one of his players in a game. But as more information comes out, that could obviously change the story. I'm just wary of the reactionary tone that took over immediately following the game, especially by [mostly] uninvolved third parties).
And yet, Hoke just kept running him out there, giving him the "game experience" of having 300 pound men land on his injured leg and forcing bad throws into bad coverage while the line crumbles around him. Mercifully he was pulled late in the 4th quarter, his ankle clearly ravaged and immediately bound up in bags of ice, and then Gardner was sent in to, I don't know, try to move the offense after being put so far behind the 8-ball that he was basically playing Snooker. After the first sustained scoring drive of the day gave the fans a slight bit of hope, the offense again became bogged down after poor field position and that was the game.
Sadly, this is becoming a running theme with Hoke. Like his QBs after one too many sacks, he locks onto a single target and just won't let go even when it is clearly futile. In his mind, Shane Morris starting was the decision Brady Hoke, the head coach of Michigan, made, and come hell, high water, or complete scuttling of the offense he was going to play every down possible goddamnit. As with the continued stupidity surrounding the punting formation (which cost them another 66 yards after last week's debacle) and his clear preference for a slowed-down, huddling offense, Hoke seems unwilling or unable to look at the current situation and reassess his options; like the mark at a Poker table, he can't read the table one bit and just keeps raising on his 2-7 because there's the possibility he'll hit a flush. All coaches have their blind spots (RR was vilified for not changing his offense when he arrived at UM given the talent available, and the less we talk about GERG the better) but Hoke's seem so wide that we should probably just take his keys away.
Worst: Tough Enough
One of the hottest of #HOTTAKES going on these past couple of weeks has been the railing against the "toughness" of the players the coaching staff. Everywhere you go, you hear and read people questioning the heart and desire of this team, about its willingness to do "what is necessary" to win, to be great, and every other insipid sports cliche uttered by screenlight coaches and players. Amplifying this mentality has been former players calling out the program and players, questioning their abilities and lobbying for the removal of the coaches and Dave Brandon. The general sentiment on the always-reliable internet is that the program is rudderless and that the players have given up as a result, or at the very least aren't able to put the effort forth necessary to win.
I know last week I described the death of my optimism about this season, so this might sound a bit hypocritical to then attack others for voicing their own displeasure, but I am profoundly, mind-numbingly tired of people questioning the desire of college players and the people who have dedicated their lives to making them better. Now, I'm not defending the results so far on the scoreboard, nor am I saying that I believe guys like Hoke, Funk, Ferrigno, etc. are the best choices for the jobs the currently inhabit. I still believe that Hoke should be gone, as the number of boneheaded decisions (the punting formation fiasco and the lack of anything resembling tempo or urgency on offense being prime examples) has only increased since he's been at the helm. But I absolutely believe that he cares about Michigan football and is trying his best to make it a winner, just like everyone else involved with the program; to question the effort and desire put forth by the players and coaches is asinine.
But caring about results is only part of the equation; you need to be able to perform well to achieve them, and obviously that is where the team has fallen short. And some of that is maybe due to "mental toughness", though I guess I read that as more to do with lagging preparation and compounded mistakes than the idea that the players are too "dumb"/easily manipulated by bad circumstances and just mentally check out. Nobody is happy with the season thus far in toto, but the reductiveness displayed by a portion of the fanbase that conflates this objective outcome with subjective interpretations of how much college-aged kids care about their performance is even worse.
It highlights the disconnect and, frankly, the gladiatorial "are you not entertained"-ness of how fans view most athletes, but it is especially disheartening when we treat college athletes, many of whom are juggling lives far more complicated and strained compared to their peers, as pawns for our entertainment. When they succeed, we tend to imprint those successes on ourselves, taking pride in accomplishments we have no connection to beyond the fact that we root for the name on their jersies. And when they inevitably fail to meet our expectations, we bristle at the equally-absurd insinuation that this reflects poorly on ourselves and our passion, resulting in questions of manhood and effort being put forth by people who are, with few exceptions, infinitely better at the sport they play than anyone reading about them is, was, or ever will be at it.
So as a fanbase, I would love nothing more than the bulk of people (because there are going to be mouthbreathers who stopped reading this post at the hashtag and will continue to perpetuate this behavior) stopped wondering about whether or not kids and coaches who represent Michigan care about putting forth the best effort possible (they do) and instead focus on how to support them while also fixing the MANY institutional and administrative issues that have lingered with this team through its various permutations.
Or, to put more succinctly, stop shitting on college kids because you don't like your team losing and need to rationalize that sad feeling in your stomach away by questioning the character of other people.
Best: Fire Brandon
That's it. Oh, you want something more?
Okay, Fire Everyone.
I'm fine with the fans chanting. Might as well direct it toward something reasonable. While I am loathe to believe it matters much to the people in control, the complete clusterf*ck that has been the athletic department these past couple of weeks might as well be highlighted by the brave souls who actually watched the game this week in person.
Best: Former Players Having Opinions
Worst: Needing to Share Those Opinions Every Chance They Get
On one hand, I absolutely believe that fans of this team should voice their opinions, and that former players and others involved in the program have a unique perspective on how the team is being run and what should be its future. I'm just a guy who sits on his couch 13 times a year watching Michigan football and remembers how it felt sitting in the stands over a decade ago watching them play under Lloyd Carr. Like the overwhelming majority of fans, my involvement with the team began and ended when I paid for tickets, and even as an alum I don't feel any great connection to the program beyond the unhealthy obsession fostered by this site and the internet more generally. So guys who bled for this team, who sat through the two-a-days, the tough losses, the long trips and the late-night study tables, and performed admirably for my entertainment should absolutely be allowed to hold their own opinions and, in certain contexts, feel free to voice them much in the same way I do here.
That said, there is a fine line between voicing your displeasure and piling on, and when you step over that line you are simply providing even more distractions for a program that doesn't need them. When someone like me writes a couple thousand words bitching about the team, nobody puts a microphone in front of me or plasters it on the front page of the sports section, and that's probably for the best because I'm kind of an idiot. But former players aren't nameless, faceless goobers; they are "important people" who "speak for the fans", and so their words are given extra meaning when they are probably based on the same raw emotions and frayed nerves that swell in most UM fans' hearts right now. They aren't pointing out something new or unknown; to continue my analogy from last week regarding the Titanic, everyone's seen the f'ing iceberg and the ship ain't getting out of the way.
Brady Hoke should be gone; full stop. The likelihood of him surviving has moved from the nearly-impossible (beat OSU and/or MSU and win a bowl game) to non-existent; even with two upsets over the rivals I can't see the toxicity surrounding him to dissipate enough. Wins will be treated as blind squirrels finding long-forgotten nuts; the core problems people have with him aren't going to change and, frankly, they would only become more calcified if Hoke could pull off a couple of wins to validate them.
It may be counter-intuitive, but I think far volumes would be spoken by former players simply remaining silent through this whole process. Brady Hoke isn't a bad guy (sure he's ornery with the press but that's the nature of any antagonistic relationship) and his love for the University is true and, sadly, unrequited right now. But we've already seen with RR how a toxic environment, fostered in part by former players speaking out against him in the press with nothing more than poorly-thought-out rants and references to a fabricated "way we used to do things", can submarine a program when it is already floundering, and both for this team as well the next coach coming in, it would be a positive for everyone if the vitriol was dialed down. I don't expect that to happen, but it would definitely help.
That's the number of plays Minnesota ran against Michigan, including 40 in the first half. For comparison, Michigan ran 53 plays all game. I thought the defense held up reasonably well in the first half despite UM having only 1 drive in that first half that lasted more than about 2 minutes and change. It felt a bit like watching the MSU game from last year, where the defense tried to hold the fort against a bruising team while the offense sputtered pretty spectacularly. Even Smith's TD was mostly a short-field drive helped by a single long-ish run. There was no sustained offensive playcalling, and it left the defense facing a rush-first team going downhill at halftime, especially after Minnesota worked their way down the field for a FG to end the half. After stoning Minnesota on the first drive of the second half and holding them to a long FG after a bad punt gave the Gophers great field position, you had a sense that the defense desperately needed the offense to do something, anything to keep the floodgates from opening. Of course, Morris then threw his pick-six and the game was effectively over.
I know it is popular to complain about every completion or positive run as if the defense is falling apart, but at some point you can't expect a defense to shut down a competent offense for 4 quarters. Minnesota's offense isn't amazing by any stretch, but it knows what it's good at and when Mitch Leidner is hitting Maxxxxxxx Williams down the sideline for one-handed grabs, there's not much else you can do. The corners, especially without Peppers and a still-slow Taylor, didn't look great, and the front seven played well but failed the dominate the line of scrimmage, which was going to be necessary to keep the game close. Yet despite the offense's ineptitude, this was a game late into the 3rd quarter, and in another world with a different offense Michigan still could have pulled this game out. I don't believe the defense is dominant, but it wasn't "exposed" here any more than most defenses are "exposed" when they are left out there far too long and without any real hope.
Worst: The Offensive Line, Again
After a couple-game reprieve to start the year, the offensive line has been downright porous the last two weeks. It's clearly a young unit trying to figure it out on the fly, and that obviously isn't conducive to keeping everyone healthy and upright. That said, Minnesota was credited with 6 TFLs, but it felt like double, and this a week after Utah recorded double-digit TFLs and seemed to be living in the backfield. The running game seemed marginally better with Smith in there, but outside of that one TD drive the rushing attack never got on track. That, plus the mounting point differential, let Minnesota pin its ears back even more. Tight end blocking remains a major issue, as Morris's near-safety in the endzone was only "saved" by Williams starting his hold outside of the endzone. Neither side of the line seemed particularly sturdy, though with Morris as a lefty it will be interesting to see if that adversely affected blocking a bit more than usual.
As people have said, competency is the shining beacon at the top of the hill for this year, and right now that feels like it is miles away.
Worst: Gotta (Get) Some Separation
I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago against Miami, but without Devin Funchess at full speed it doesn't feel like any of the other WRs can get consistent separation from opposing corners and open up the types of windows a QB needs to hit. Given how bad Funchess has looked in the weeks since he picked up the most important 4 yards in the history of UM football against Notre Dame (hear those echoes), someone else in the receiving core needs to step up and provide an open target, and in this game it rarely seemed like anyone was doing that downfield. True, Morris didn't help the matter by consistently throwing behind, ahead, around, etc. his receivers, but when your QB's long completion is 14 yards and it's to the guy with a gimpy ankle, you are in trouble. It does feel like the team might be overflowing with possession receivers, which is great if you have other options but deadly when the defense can sit on them without fear of being burned deep. Minnesota does have a good secondary and Morris was, again, pretty erratic, but if this team has any hope of moving the ball going forward somebody is going to have to start catching the ball downfield.
Worst: Next Week
I keep saying it couldn't be worse but it still does. Rutgers should be a very winnable game, but who the heck knows anymore. I presume Gardner will get the start so that will help, and Gary Nova may just be inept enough that Michigan can pull out a win. But I'm finally ready to accept that Michigan is going to probably blow this game, and it might get ugly at the end. I hope I'm proven wrong, but I'm definitely not going to worry about it either way.
Note: This gets saucy.
Worst: Death of an Optimist
People who have followed this diary know I'm a pretty optimistic guy.
But I'm done. I'm done with this season, with this coaching staff, with this whole f'ing show.
It isn't the losing; teams lose games. Utah isn't a good team, but neither is UM, and this was one of those games, like ND, where the breaks of the game are zero-sum; "good" plays require the other side to have a "bad" ones, but those constructs aren't always tied to the overall qualities of the two teams. In other words, while Utah's punt return for a TD is because Brady Hoke is a dinosaur with his head up a slightly less-evolved dinosaur's ass, a college kicker connecting on a couple of 50-ish FGs in a rain storm is just kinda ¯(ツ)/¯.
But I'm getting off track. I'm not a fan of hypoerbole, but this is the Mississippi State game for RR times a hundred. Last year's MSU game was horrible but it was expected given how poorly the offensive line looked and how tough MSU's defense turned out to be. But Utah isn't a good team defensively, or at least isn't the type of defense that should be able to hold UM to 3 points offensively. It isn't the points that matter, though, because that would be comically simple and depressing. Both Idaho St. and Fresno St., two teams with a combined 2 wins in 7 tries between them, scored more points against this Utah team, and both of those games were on the road. And it isn't the yardage or statistics, as UM outgained Utah on the ground, took fewer penalties, dominated TOP for most of the game, and for long stretches looked dominant defensively. Like against Notre Dame, the team played better than the numbers on the scoreboard.
So maybe this is just another bad break, you say. And maybe Utah is poised to go off on another undefeated, fantastic season, and Michigan was just the first of many unlikely victims. And honestly, that mindset would have been me a couple of weeks ago. But things have changed. No, what happened Saturday is more than a bad loss, because those happen to good teams all the time. And it wasn't just that the f'ing winningest team in f'ing college football history, with a 5th-year QB and a 1st-round WR and oodles of talent up and down the roster (young as it may be), couldn't score more than 3 points against f'ing Utah. No, what killed my optimism about this team and this staff, about this program as it is currently stumbling through another shitty year, is how absolutely true-to-form it is to the dreams of the men in charge. Which brings me to my next point...
Worst-est: This is Michigan Football
For Dave Brandon and Brady Hoke, this is the perfect embodiment of football. No, not the losses, but that's secondary. To both of them, this brand of Michigan football is a perverse homage to a bygone era in football when men were men and you won because of grit and heart and having institutional advantages over smaller programs due to years of recruiting tactics, demographics, and inertia. It's stupid punting formations, always huddling without any sense of urgency, the 100k attendance record, and wringing every last possible dollar out of a fanbase that for decades was all too happy to do so if you stroked its ego and won 8 or more games a year. The Michigan that we all see on the field isn't what most of us want, but it's what the hive mind in Schembechler Hall thinks is good for business in Ann Arbor, and so nobody with the power to change it wants to right the boat. And that's a f'ing tragedy, because the lights are going out and Jack ain't coming to put UM on a door until the rescue party arrives.
Michigan isn't what it was, and "what it was" was never how a certain subset of the fanbase, including apparently this administration, remembers it. I know it is blasphemy to question the "fabled" history of UM football, but since the 1940s Michigan has been the definition of a high-level "plugger", the type of team that won games by showing up and beating the teams they should and losing to the teams they should by following a simple script. And yet as the game kept changing, Michigan remained its anachronistic self, buffered somewhat by this conference's stupidity-sealed bubble that talks about competing nationally while the University of Kentucky out-recruits everyone not named Michigan, OSU, or Nebraska and hiring every mediocre MAC coach with a pulse while the rest of college football laughs and points.
And when the fanbase seemingly had had enough of being run off their own field by a bunch of fowl, and the administration took a shot on a guy who helped bring about the current age of the sport and won everywhere he coached, a bunch of faux sentinels of the "good days" cut off his legs at every chance and sat back as a combination of self-inflicted wounds and the rotten core of a dying program ending his run. RR's failure as a head coach at Michigan is one thing; you can be a good coach and not be a good fit at certain places. But Brandon and his cohort didn't view Rodriguez's ousting at UM simply as a bad fit, but instead as "proof" that this new-fangled version of college football, where smart guys try to take advantage of inefficiencies in the game and implement offensive and defensive systems to do so, is just a fad and the good old days of swinging your member around on the sidelines and expecting the opposition to be scared off are back. Instead of trying to find another good coach and help him with the PR element, Brandon did what he learned as a one-time CEO of a mediocre mass-market pizza maker (acquiring the position only because his investment firm was trying to flip Domino's for a short profit) and hired a guy for a short-term PR bump and to goose the bottom line without considering the long-term ramifications for the program.
And that gets us to Brady Hoke, the last guy in the room when the music stopped. Hoke seems like a perfectly nice human being (when not talking to the press) who was a mediocre head coach before he came to UM (though I do think the under-.500 record part is a dumb metric) and who rode some nice pieces to an 11-win season before reverting to what he is; a guy who isn't very aware of modern college football and doesn't care much for what he has heard. Brian keeps referring to Hoke and Brandon thinking the ideal football was played in 1997; to me, that's being generous. That team may have been conventionally similar to past units, but for one year Carr recognized he had great talents in guys like Woodson, Griese, Tuman, Thomas, Ray, etc. and put them in positions to succeed. Hoke looks at a team with a 5th-year QB who can outrun most defenders and who has a physically dominant WR and tries to nut up for 3 yards a carry after bleeding 30 seconds from the game clock. He's not an idiot (the guy has forgotten more football than I've ever known), but he is stubborn, myopic, and as beholden to his "system" as any coach; the problem is his system should have been buried with hair metal and New Coke when its expiration was hit.
And sadly, even if Hoke and Brandon are gone at the end of the year, I don't see how things really change around here. Michigan isn't going to try to get an up-and-coming AD with a focus on fan appreciation; they'll just hire another suit who talks about brand management, synergy, and "keeping true to tradition" while everyone else in college football politely nods in public and laughs in private. And best-case scenario (for some) Michigan gets a Harbaugh or a Harbaugh-type, which means UM probably wins for a couple of years behind a dynamite recruiter before he pisses off enough people (or gets enticed back to the NFL) and then we start this song-and-dance again.
So I guess that's the state of Michigan right now: a degenerate looking for his next quick fix, afraid to venture outside of his comfort because it might mean truly having to change. Michigan is no longer the "leaders and the best", but a f'ing punchline to discussions about antiquated football and how the new guard of college football teams are making their mark. This is Michigan, and it ain't going to change anytime soon.
Worst: The Offensive Playcalling
I'm not going to crap on the offensive players too much because (a) I'm not a fan on picking on college kids when they are clearly competing, and (b) they didn't do THAT badly. Yes, there were a distressing number of TFLs, and the offensive line looked out of sorts at times, but many of the issues felt like miscues more than an inability to perform. Devin Gardner was off all day, Funchess seemed limited by a lingering ankle injury that was totally worth the 4-yard gain he picked up against Notre Dame when Michigan was losing 31-0, and nobody else seemed able to catch the ball or get open downfield. Green ran well when he made a decisive cut, but struggled at times with decisions and being asked to run parallel to the line against a small-but-fast Utah front 7. It was a bad performance, but it felt in large part due to the playcalling.
Man was this an awful game to watch from a coaching perspective. It reached its nadir when Chris Spielman loudly pointed out that Michigan showed absolutely no sense of urgency in the 4th quarter despite, you know, being within 2 scores of a lead/tie. He kept using this word "tempo" and "speeding up the game" as if this coaching staff had ANY FUCKING clue what that meant beyond that fact that it was what "pussies" used when they couldn't play football. Every play was stare at the sideline for the signal, huddle up, walk to the line, act like you are going to check into something else when the only playcall was to slam your collective dong into the doorjam again, run the clock down to near 0, then repeat. It was playcalling for appearances instead of purpose; Brian equated it to looking like you were playing football when you really weren't trying to. Today was worse than when it happened against ND because at least there the game was out of reach and I suspected that the staff didn't want it to get any uglier by taking more risks with a young team on the road. But this was was a home game against a meh opponent that Michigan was absolutely still in; a TD score at any point in that second half turns that into a very real game and maybe changes the outcome. But the offensive playcalling stunk of quitting, of trying to keep the boss happy. It was disheartening and frankly offensive to the fans, and one more middle finger to everyone from guys whose arms should be tired by now.
Michigan never tried to throw deep, or if they did it was only after botched play-action passes that needed eons to set up and left Gardner eating well-timed blitzes in the gut or throwing into quad coverage because the captain has turned on the "THROW TO FUNCHESS" sign in the cockpit. Maybe with Funchess being hurt they lacked a deep threat, which is sad but could have been mitigated somewhat with the type of slants, crossing-patterns, picks, etc. that other teams have in their arsenal. When it became apparent that parts of the line weren't going to be able to hold up against Utah's until-this-game mediocre pass rush, nobody on Michigan's sideline thought to turn the playsheet over and try to throw from the shotgun to at least give Gardner a chance to see the rush and survey the field. Norris and Orchard were living in the backfield for most of the game and Michigan's response was apparently to keep running their base offense and, I don't know, hope they get tired. I stopped keeping count of the number of 2nd-and-longs and 3rd-and-longs that Michigan set on fire with draw plays and short throws to the outside, and for every nice playcall (e.g. the pitch for the 1st on 4th down), there were absolutely boneheaded ones (Gardner's scramble on the failed 4th down conversion where Michigan had 1 blocker for 3 Utah defenders).
Now, I recognize that some of the struggles were in execution versus playcalling; Nussmeier and Hoke aren't calling in for Williams to whiff on a block or for Funchess to short-arm the catch on Gardner's first INT. I'm sure Gardner has been instructed to work through his progressions, but in this game it seemed like it was 1-and-scramble. And I'm willing to cut Nussmeier a bit more slack because, well, the guy has only been here for 4 games and it is hard to un-teach some bad habits. But Borges is gone and the same stupid shit keeps happening, and this feels more and more like a mandate from Hoke, or at least a desire to run the most inefficient offense imaginable.
Worst: About Those "Hidden Yar..."
Worst: You Stupid Ass, Stop Punting Like it's 1970
So yeah, you know how Brian talked about "hidden yards" in the preview against Utah and how Michigan's punting formations have bitten them in the ass since Hoke showed up? Well, Utah took one to the house to take the lead in the 2nd quarter and finished with 83 yards in returns. Michigan? They finished with 3 yards, with a long of 9 that was basically Norfleet making a bunch of guys miss. I don't think it made a huge difference in this game, but it remains one of the MANY embarrassing elements of this coaching staff.
Best: The Defense Deserves Better
Under Rich Rodriguez, it was trendy to say that Michigan's offense deserved better than the historically bad defense they had, and while that wasn't 100% true it did feel like the offense suffered somewhat by the defense being unable to get off the field. Well, under Hoke it feels like the tables have turned; the defense has become one of the better units in the country while the offense has regressed tremendously. Outside of an RPS 67-yard pass in the first quarter, Michigan's defense was sufficiently dominant in the first half. It scored on an INT and constantly harassed Utah QBs, including a tombstone piledriver the likes of which you usually only see in bingo halls surrounded by Juggalos.
Even as the game progressed and Utah pulled away, the defense kept Michigan in it. Utah had three total drives over 54 yards on the day, ending in a total of 10 points. The two second-half FGs were just great kicks; when a college kicker puts 48- and 50-yarders through the uprights with yards to spare in a driving rain storm, you just have to shrug and move on. Plus, both of those scoring drives came after offensive turnovers, one on downs and the other on Gardner's second INT.
For the game UM held Utah to around 2 yards per carry, 35% on 3rd-down conversions, and under 300 total yards despite facing 69 plays. They had 11 TFLs, including 3 sacks. The unit still lacks a dominant playmaker, but it is rapidly-improving and has shown it against a couple of good offenses. Put this unit with IU's offense and the Hoosiers are winning this conference in a walk. Though it is unlikely in the event of a coaching change, it would behoove Michigan greatly to keep Greg Mattison and the bulk of this defensive staff together, especially if it means they can move Manning out of the secondary and into a better fit.
Frank Clark continued his great season with his first sack, and if he continues to play like this he'll be hearing his name in the first couple of rounds of the NFL draft. I thought Jourdan Lewis played really well, getting to breakups and generally keeping up with Utah's WRs. Countess looked comfortable at Nickle, and Jake Ryan looked as disruptive as we've seen all year. Willie Henry had his fat guy TD, and was able to get a push inside that really disrupted Utah's entire offense for long stretches of the game. It was a performance worthy of a win, and my lagging hope for this team rests squarely on the defense keeping them in games against the dreck of the conference coming up.
Worst: Can You Have a QB Controversy When Everybody Struggles?
Gardner looked like a mess after that first quarter, but Morris didn't look any better when he came in the 4th quarter. Gardner was throwing late all day, and got Funchess crunched a couple of times on balls that shouldn't have been thrown; you are seeing what 3 OCs in 5 years (and no real QB coaching) can do to a guy. Part of the blame should fall on him for repeating the same mistakes, but it's hard to imagine that Gardner would have to go on an impressive hot streak to come close to approaching the numbers he put up last year, one that many Michigan fans consider a disappointment.
Morris showed a bit of life and still has all the tools to be a top QB, but it's been 2 years and the game still seems to be flying by him a million miles an hour, and next year I guess he'll just have to figure it out on the job, because there is nobody waiting in the wings to step in unless Malzonne comes in like a house of fire. If you want to throw in the towel on the season then I guess you give Morris more reps and see what happens, but based on Hoke's press conference he seems set on the farce that Michigan can still compete for conference titles and will roll with Gardner to the end. Gardner still feels like the best option, but at this point I'm not sure it matters.
Worst: Michigan Screwed Michigan
One of the seminal moments in modern wrestling history was the night that the "Vince McMahon" character became an on-screen entity during the infamous "Montreal Screwjob". The Cliffnotes version is that then-WWF/E champion Bret "The Hitman" Hart had agreed to sign with WWF/E's main rival WCW, and before leaving Vince McMahon wanted Hart to lose the title to "The Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels. Now, Hart and Michaels did not get along for a variety of reasons, chief amongst them the fact that Michaels was a notorious asshole at the time and Hart came from the old-school wrestling Hart family. Hart had absolutely no desire to lose the belt to Michaels, and had told Vince he'd drop it to anyone else. Making the matter even more difficult was the fact that the next PPV was Survivor Series in Canada, Hart's home country and a place where he is a beloved son. Varying accounts note that both sides had agreed on a screwy finish to the match such that Bret retained against Michaels but he would lose the title shortly thereafter.
During the course of the match, Michaels locked in Hart's signature sharpshooter submission hold. This is a common trope in wrestling, and typically doesn't lead to a finish in the match but instead simply some added drama. Yet, as soon as Michaels had locked in the hold and the referee started asking Hart if he submitted, McMahon called for the bell and informed everyone that Hart had tapped and awarded the title to Michaels. Mayhem ensued, with Hart trying to kill people in the ring and beating up McMahon backstage. Hart left for WCW shortly thereafter and only semi-recently made peace with the WWF/E. For his part, McMahon became one of the most hated/beloved heels in wrestling history, and helped kick-start the Attitude Era that was the last boom period for professional wrestling.
So why bring this up here? Well, because the story morphed from McMahon screwing over Bret Hart to Hart doing it to himself by failing to evolve and work with the direction wrestling was going. Hart was a popular champion but not a transcendent one, and while his in-ring work was top-notch he wasn't pushing PPV gates and merchandising enough to justify his salary. He was poached by WCW as much to piss off McMahon and weaken his promotion than because WCW felt Hart would be a huge star for them; though his career was cut short following a concussion during a match with Goldberg it wasn't a smashing success after the initial excitement of the move. Hart wasn't a dinosaur by any means, but like Michigan he seemed always a bit stuck in the past, a little too earnest and milquetoast for an entertainment medium that was moving closer to the edge of raunchiness. It didn't mean he couldn't be successful, but the ceiling was there for him.
I know this is repeating stuff from above, but Michigan put themselves in this position by ignoring most of the changes that have been going in college football for the past 10-15 years. They are scared of change not because they are afraid of failure as much as they are afraid of ever having to explain WHY something didn't work. Hoke would rather stand there in front of the press and say they didn't "execute" or "make enough plays" to win instead of saying he tried something new and he believes in it even though short-term results are poor, because with the prior you can harken to the past and at least say you were doing your job. But try something new, anything new, and you have to justify why, and my gawd is that impossible right now for this group of guys. Maybe Hoke and the team will rally; again, this is a terrible conference and they could lose to MSU and OSU and still finish with a decent bowl game. But the past ain't coming back, and the longer this school keeps its head in the sand about it the more irrelevant they will be.
I'm calling this a best because Minnesota can't throw the ball and is even less creative offensively than Michigan; Michigan will probably win this game and Hoke will be able to stand at the podium and spout off about "heart" and "resiliency". But this season is already lost, and the sooner it is put out of its misery the better.
I hope you saved some space on your plate for these #HOTTAKES.
Worst: Cue Up Morrissey
I'll get this right out up front; I am not nearly as down about this game as seems to be the general consensus. I'm a bit of an optimist at heart, but a 34-10 win where UM more than doubled the yardage of the opposition (while holding them under 200 total yards) and never being seriously challenged save for a random 5-minute spurt in the 2nd quarter in which everything that could go wrong did just doesn't get my blood boiling. Yes, the team looked out-of-sorts at times, and obviously this isn't one for the Gardner archives, but reading my Facebook feed and the comments on the internet, you'd think UM had just lost to MAC teams like so many conference brethren.
I do think there is a subset of the fanbase that must disabuse itself of the notion that Michigan can just impose its will on teams and the opponents will oblige by pulling their collective tails beneath them and scurrying away. The announcers of the game (who I thought did an immensely better job than last we heard BTN announcer/bitter OSU WR Joey Galloway and Beth "EMPhasis on the wrong syLLAble" Moowins) mentioned a couple of times that Miami wasn't "afraid" or in awe of UM. Now, maybe Angola was taken aback by the mere presence of the Dream Team in 1992, but a D1 team comprised of players from the same region should absolutely feel like it can compete, especially when the opposition is giving away possessions and clearly not at the top of its game for stretches of the contest. I know I'm harping on a seemingly-meaningless point, but the part of the Michigan internet echo chamber that drives me most crazy is the chicken little mentality that has existed for decades (and yes, this existed well before 2007). It wasn't pretty all the time, and there are definitely lingering issues (i.e. clock management at the end of halves, Gardner's skittishness and WR lock-on, coverages issues in the secondary), but this team looks light-years ahead of where it was last year in its third game against Akron, where they gave up 418 yards and needed a last-second stop at home. Michigan largely dominated an overmatched team saved for a string of bad luck in the 2nd quarter, and attempts to make it more meaningful or representative of the rest of the season feels like a fool's errand.
Best: Apparently They Listened
Last week I said that I thought it would behoove the coaching staff to pick one of the two key backs and give him the bulk of the carries for a game or two just to build some cohesiveness and see if Green or Smith could be the "feature" back in this offense. Well, after some chatter this week that Smith was seen gingerly walking around campus, Derrick Green was given 27 carries this game and turned in a pretty solid performance, averaging 6.2 ypc and 2 TDs. That average is both impressive (his long was only 27 yards, so it wasn't goosed by some massive run through the secondary) and a bit troubling (you kinda hoped the former #1 RB recruit could have broken a big run against a turrible Miami defense), but overall Green looked better as the game progressed and made some nice cuts and reads throughout the day, including what I believe was his long run where he went left then cut back right to burst through a massive hole on the backside of the play. Perhaps most promising was the fact that he ran thru contact far better than in the past, falling forward and getting those couple of extra yards good backs should always eek out. While I understand the value of multiple backs being interchangeable parts in the rushing attack, it does seem to help when a back can get into the flow of the game and run multiples series without being swapped in and out. While I'd still love for either Green or Smith to have that extra speed element that can turn some of these 10+ yard runs into 50+ yard TD runs, at this stage the rushing attack looks lightyears better than it did last year, when TFLs were abundant (only 2 this game, for a total of 3 yards) even against the dregs on the schedule (Akron had 7 for 21 yards).
Meh: Chaotic Neutral Devin Gardner
Gardner had an average performance, one that probably was a bit worse than I'm making it out to be (his mechanics seemed out of whack at times and a couple of his throws, including the INT, were a result of locking onto the WR and not setting his feet in the pocket) but also one not nearly as bad as the Russell Bellomy Special people are making it out to be. Coming on the heels of last week's second-half horror show, it was a bit disheartening to see Gardner throw another bad INT on a pass that led to Chesson getting sandwiched between two Redhawks. Also, and this is somewhat hard to tell from the sideline camera angle, but it felt like Gardner sensed breakdowns in the pocket that weren't there, leading him to scramble around and make off-balance throws where stepping up or shifting position slightly would have been sufficient. But unlike in years past, he halted the scuttling in the second half, and that wide-open TD to Butt that really broke the game open and settled everyone down. I saw some people complain that Gardner nearly blew that wide-open pass, but that type of throw actually seems harder than it looks precisely because of how open Butt was; as a QB, you are conditioned to expect a certain level of coverage on your receivers, and when a guy is that blindingly wide open it seems to catch lots of QBs by surprise and takes them a moment to adjust.
Overall, Gardner's numbers were fine (14+ yards per completion, 2 TDs, running when appropriate) and he seems to have found another weapon in Darboh that will help complement Funchess when he gets back. It was a workman-like performance, and coming off last week's game it was a welcome return.
Worst: ChadTomDrewJohnJimDenard HenneBradyHensonNavarreHarbaughRobinson Jr. Ain't Walking Through That Door
You always hear that the best position on a team is the backup to the "leader", whether it be QB, goalie, PG, etc. While the starter plays every game and exposes his failings on a daily basis, the platonic ideal of that player tends to manifest themselves in the form of the backup, who rarely sees the field and thus does nothing to dispel the notion that he would be superior to the incumbent even though in most circumstances, you know, he would probably be the starter if he actually was better.
Now, Gardner's problem isn't most people thinking Shane Morris should be the starter; beyond the "give reps to the future" camp, I haven't seen many people arguing Morris is better than Gardner right now at QB. What I do see, in veiled references and wistful posts, is the idea that Gardner is somehow demonstrably worse than those QBs who came before him, that if you put any of a dozen former QBs in his spot they would be world-beaters. To me, this mindset is the combination of whitewashing the past while stubbornly ignoring the realities of the present that you typically only see when you talk to Baby Boomers.
Look at Tom Brady's college stats, then remember he had future NFL Offensive ROY Anthony Thomas as the feature back, throwing to future 1st rounder NFL pick David Terrell and 3rd-rounder Marquise Walker, and was protected by All Big Tens Jon Jansen and Steven Hutchinson, with Hutch being one of the best 2-3 guards in the history of the program. Henne always had Hart and a cadre of NFL-quality WRs to throw to, from Braylon to Manningham and Breaston, and had future #1 overall tackle Jake Long covering his backside every year.
My point isn't to disparage the past accomplishments of players; Drew Henson could have been a transcendent star at UM if he had stuck around, and guys like Jim Harbaugh played in a different era but were absolutely deserving of the accolades they received. But they weren't world-beaters, and virtually all of them played on better teams, with better supporting casts and far more coherent offensive philosophies and coaching stability, than Devin Gardner. And they all had their flaws; guys like Henne and Navarre were notorious for locking onto their safety blankets (usually Braylon or Walker) and willing the ball to them, coverage be damned. Most QBs do that at various points in their careers, and anyone who has watched an NFL game with Calvin Johnson, Randy Moss, etc. in the lineup knows that this behavior isn't confined to the college game. Brady emerged somewhat as a senior, but he seemed like the definition of a game manager throughout his career, with his last game against Alabama being so memorable because of how against-type it was compared to the rest of his career.
Barring an epic turnaround, Gardner won't go down in Michigan lore as one of the great ones; not enough record-breaking runs like Denard, too strong a perception that he throws interceptions and misses receivers be respected as a passer. And games like this one do nothing to dispel these notions, but that's an issue more for the viewer than the realities of Devin Gardner's tenure at QB for Michigan. He's a good QB who probably won't ever be great, and that's fine; you have to go pretty far back in the history books before you'd find someone who would fit that designation at UM. But the constant strawmen he's compared to, and the needless nit-picking that seems to follow his every performance, is both an unnecessary exercise in rabble-rousing and a disservice to a pretty good player.
Best: Depth at Wide Receiver or
Worst: Is That Depth Only Interchangeable?
It was great to see guys like Darboh, Chesson, and even a brief appearance by Canteen get some focus in a passing attack that still seems to be figuring out what to do with the players available. Darboh clearly established himself as the starter across from Funchess, and he looked sufficiently athletic enough to punish teams who single-cover him, at least with the ball in his hands (that first fumble was due as much to ball security as a good tackle by Miami). Chesson couldn't pull in a gorgeous pass from Morris in the endzone when the MU corner swiped his arm, and he was the intended receiver who got crunched on Devin's tipped INT, but he his holding off some decent players for his spot and is also contributing on special teams. Norfleet didn't catch a pass but had a great kickoff return to start the game and his 21-yard run on 1st down in the 3rd quarter gave Michigan great field position that they ultimately squandered. Even Jungle Beats got in on the action, and looked like he could be a playmaker as the season progresses.
At the same time, it was a bit disheartening to see the passing offense remain a bit stagnant, at least in terms of downfield threats. Darboh averaged a shade over 14.5 yards per catch, and that included a 26-yarder that featured quite a bit yac tacked onto a short slant/crossing route. The longest completion of the day was on Butt's TD, which required absolutely every Miami player to not keep their eyes on a big Butt as it passed them by.
Given how the offense seems adverse to throwing downfield consistently even when Funchess is available, my inclination is not that Michigan has a bunch of possession receivers but that they aren't being asked to stretch the field. So far Nussmeier seems content to take a couple shots down the field a game but mostly focus on getting the ball out to his playmakers and asking them to make yardage after the catch, highlighted by the multiple WR screens and quick outs we've seen for three weeks now. Hopefully as the season progresses we'll see a more diverse passing attack, but at least so far it does look like UM has playmakers outside, in the slot, and at TE.
Best: The Charmeleon'ing of the Offensive Line
I was a bit too old for the whole Pokemon craze, but having two younger brothers and playing a fair bit of Super Smash Brothers I was exposed to enough of the mythos to make this reference kinda work. The Pokemon creatures, both as a homage to the growth patterns of many inspects as well as a shameless money grab to force fans to purchase ever-more "intense" versions of the same basic character, "evolve" as they gain more experience in battles and, I guess, in life. So like a mild-manner turtle named Squirtle can become the weaponized Blastoise simply be practicing and becoming more attuned to its skills and abilities, it feels like the offensive line is becoming more proficient and cohesive every week. Yes there were breakdowns, but the running game didn't get overly bogged down after some early struggles, and as noted earlier it felt like Gardner's scrambles were as much a response to phantom pains from past rib-crushings than Miami consistently getting pressure. As always, competency is the end-goal this year, and this unit is going to struggle against some of the better lines on the schedule, but this felt like another battle won by the line, and every week they are gaining the experience necessary to take the next step in its evolution.
I'm sure the rush defense is going to struggle at some point this year, but its been three weeks in a row now where opposing offenses are getting absolutely stoned running the ball. Excising the one 1 sack by Beyer, Michigan held Miami to 46 yards on 23 carries, or a very tidy 2.0 ypc. The longest run of the day was an 8-yard scramble by Andrew Hendrix, and at no point did Miami seem capable of getting a consistent push against the front 7. Both Bolden and Ryan looked more comfortable out there, though it still feels like Ryan is wasted in the middle given his disruptive abilities as a pass rusher, and Thomas was in to snuff out some runs as well. It continues to be a bit troubling that the team isn't recording buckets of TFLs, but its a minor quibble considering Miami had a total of 8 first downs all day, and most of those came on their two short-field scoring drives.
Best: All Those Penalties
One of those underrated stats that "smart" football minds used to lord over was the number of pass interference flags certain WRs would accumulate over the season. The logic is that a PI is at least as good as a completion; it typically means the defender had to bail out on whatever he normally does and resort to cheating to stop a long completion from occurring. Certain receivers tended to draw those flags more than others, and identifying them and their disruptive tendencies helped both defense as well as the offense because you could design plays that would isolate those players against corners and try to draw flags at key moments.
The corollary on the defensive line should probably be the false start, especially at the tackle spots. When you have a great pass rusher, your tackles know they need to get whatever jump they can in order to compensate, and as a result they'll try to "cheat" on quick counts to get that extra half-step before contact. In this game, it seemed that the Miami line was so worried about guys like Clark, Henry, and Beyer that they had 4 false starts plus one delay of game that immediately followed the first false start. Though they only recorded the one Beyer sack, Clark was consistently putting pressure on Hendrix, and had the line kept containment on a few plays they probably would have record 2-3 more sacks (one play in particular seemingly featured the entire line chasing Hendrix as he fled the pocket; you probably don't want to see that on a 4-man rush). It feels like the sacks are going to be there at the end of the year, and in this game the disruptiveness along that line just manifested itself in all the laundry being thrown by the refs.
Worst: Holding's Still a Thing, Right?
Each team was called for one hold in this game, with Michigan's coming on the last, meaningless drive. That seems about 100 short considering how overmatched Miami's line looked at times and how frequently a UM defender was thisclose to dragging down Hendrix or tackling a back behind the line, only to see that player escape for a minimal gain or throw the ball away. There is undoubtedly some bias in this view, but it felt like after the flurry of self-inflicted wounds by Miami to start the game, the referees seemed to let up a bit. Listen, just because Miami is screwing up before the play doesn't mean they aren't equally dumb during the play. It's the same mentality that led to the "press coverage or die" popularized by MSU and the Seahawks; nobody wants to call a penalty on every play, so accept some bad calls for the overall success rate you get by grabbing and holding. It didn't really matter in the end, but it was annoying to watch in real time.
Meh: The Secondary
I've never sat in on coaching meetings nor do I know the exact formations being taught by the coaching staff, but watching the game it felt like the corners were still struggling with the intricacies of the coverages being called. A number of times there were Miami receivers in the gaps between 2-3 Michigan defenders, with a corner trailing behind and a LB twisting around, trying to locate the ball. On one of those Bolden made a nice 1-handed deflection that probably would have been a nice reception without it, and an early 3rd-and-14 pass to Rokeem Williams was open between 4 Michigan defenders that Hendrix just underthrew. Again, some of these "mistakes" could have been designs of the defense that Miami simply countered; even bad teams can get you in a bad formation or find a hole in the coverage. And the defense was still down Taylor and Peppers was getting his first sustained time on the field, so some growing pains are to be expected. But I agree with Brian that the secondary still seems to be getting the intricacies of the defensive scheme down, which is usually a big enough problem if it wasn't also compounded by having the coach learning it for the first time as well.
Worst: Clock Management and Coaching or
Worst-er: Bitching about Clock Management and Coaching
Everyone complained about the slowest 4-minute drill to end the first half, and the decision to punt at the Miami 37 after a delay of game on 4th-and-1 were cringe-worthy, but I'm comfortably numb at this point to these brain farts with Michigan football, and would argue that this stuff happens to every team from time to time. Yes, great teams usually don't waste oodles of time in a close game huddling and then running clocking-killing runs from midfield, but Michigan is so far away from being a "great" team that "not screwing this up and getting somebody killed" beats out "throwing it for a pick-6 because your first-year WR runs the wrong pattern" even if the latter probably nets you more points over time.
I know fans want this team to be less derpy about clock management, but for better or for worse this is how Michigan has played for decades now. At some point you'd hope that the coaching staff pushes the envelope a bit and picks up the pace, but at the same time all coaching staffs have their blind spots, and when UM is back to consistently winning 10-11 games a year I'll start worrying about these wasted opportunities. It's probably a bit defeatist and unproductive, but no more so than the weekly complaints about it.
Best: One of These is Not Like the Others
Though the NCAA.com hasn't updated the stats for the week thus far, it is safe to assume that Michigan has one of the weirder profiles in college football. They sport one of the top defenses overall, especially against the run, and have a decent rushing attack (top 30-ish) and an emerging passing game. The kicking game is a little meh, but it isn't an atrocity either to the scale it was under RR. Michigan has outscored its opponents 117 to 55, and that is with the potential outlier of ND's 31-0 whatever that was. And yet, the team has a turnover margin of -7, with only some of that explained by poor ball security or bad throws. I know Michigan has been snakebitten in the turnover department for years now (save 2011), but it feels like that will have to rectify itself, especially given how strong the defense has looked overall. Provided the running game isn't a mirage and the line continues its solid play, that should take some pressure off Gardner and thus allow him to pass under less duress, and at some point you have to think Clark, Ryan, etc. will start creating turnovers in droves. Heck, Lewis's INT was a result of Hendrix being under pressure and throwing a floater up short. This team probably deserves to still be 2-1, and with a bit more luck, who knows?
Best: Cradle of Fandom
Usually during rivalry weeks around these parts, people talk about how they came to be a fan of the Wolverines. Many of the stories features tales of family members taking them to games as youths, or plopping down in front of the TV and catching a big game on national TV, or being inducted into the Michigan family before they even opened their eyes.
Me, I came to be a Michigan football fan by a more circuitous, or at least a less conventional, route.
Growing, my sport was basketball. Loved watching it, loved playing it, everything about the hardwood interested me. My favorite book was a compendium of the 50 best basketball players based on whatever criteria that ended up with Kendall Gill and just-out-of-college Christian Laettner.
|I'm as surprised as you are, Christian.|
Hell, I even bought Bill Laimbeer's Combat Basketball, even though I played it for about 5 minutes total. Now, I wasn't conventionally "good" at playing the game of basketball, but it remains one of the few competitive sports that comes with both single-player and multi-player compatibility out of the box; you can shoot alone on your driveway or join a pickup game seamlessly. My father's first passion was basketball, and some of my fondest memories involved playing horse with him as he taught me the hook shot and how to square my shoulders when taking a jumpshot. And growing up in the shadow of the Fab 5 era cemented my love for the game, though weirdly not for the University. Sure I loved the fact that my local college team was winning games with flair and had future pros up and down the roster, but you could have switched them with Central and I wouldn't have batted an eye.
Football was a different beast for me; while I had briefly played it as a youngster, it just didn't stick. My dad had attended Michigan and would watch the bowl games and the major rivalries on TV, but it wasn't a religious experience for him the way it seemed for other families. So it wasn't until 1995 when I attended my first UM football game, with my friend and his father, against the Miami (NTM) RedHawks. And as weird as it is to say nearly two decades later, that was when I probably became a true Michigan fan.
It was one of those beautiful fall days you always remember every football Saturday being even though most probably weren't. I had never been to Ann Arbor, so the hour-plus drive from Royal Oak, MI was a blur of highways and weird farm country. We parked a couple blocks off State Street (probably off Packard, but who knows) and walked down beautiful tree-lined streets to Hoover, then into the stadium. It seems like most Michigan fans have their first stadium experience in one of two ways; as small children taken by family, where everything is overwhelming and you don't really grasp it at the time, or as (relatively) jaded college freshmen who are impressed but have enough life experience and have many other things on their mind (e.g. getting acclimated to college life, classes, parties, etc.) that the full impact of the surroundings is muted.
Well, and this will sound like hyperbole, that was the moment I figured out I wanted to go to the University of Michigan. It's simplistic and over the years I obviously learned more about the school and how it fit into my future plans, but that day, sitting in those stands watching UM put away a plucky Redhawks team that felt eerily like this game (UM was never truly threatened, but that Miami team was pretty good at 8-2-1 and certainly had enough playmakers to keep up), I became enchanted with the football team, the stadium, the school, and everything that encapsulated. And that team UM finished with 4 losses, part of a 4-year streak in which the Wolverines finished with 4 losses each year, that ended in 1997.
I guess the reason I shared this story is that for all the complaining and consternation people around here have about the "direction" of the program, marketing efforts, ticket pricing and attendance, and all the other minutiae that occupies the days between gameday, it helps to remember that for lots of people, the magic isn't gone and the experience of being in that stadium on a crisp fall day is one that can have profound influence on their lives. Hell, the reason I was even there was probably because Miami was a "poor" opponent and tickets were readily available; earlier that year the 100k attendance record nearly ended when Memphis showed up. I'm not saying yesterday's game will lead to someone adopting the Wolverines as the University as his/her own, but part of me hopes that another generation of fans does.
Best: Bring on the Utes
It's fashionable to talk about Utah being a dangerous team, and I'll admit that Dres Anderson (who is one of my college football fantasy WRs) looks pretty good so far this year. But the two teams they have beaten are a combined 1-5, with that one win being Idaho St.'s "not as close as the score indicates but still not a good sign when the other team doesn't even have a logo on ESPN" win over Chadron St. The Utes have had a week to prepare, but Michigan will be a massive step up in talent compared to Utah's schedule so far, and while last year's Utah team upset Stanford and lost a nailbitter to ASU last year, it was otherwise handled pretty handily by the good teams on its schedule and only had a 7-point win over BYU on the road. It will be a tougher test that UM probably wanted when they scheduled this game years ago, but it also feels like a good barometer for the team's potential this season. I expect Utah to be able to move the ball at times, but Wilson is no Golson and if Michigan can cut down on the inexplicable turnovers, I think they'll emerge with a win.