at least it's not just us?
There are going to be references to wrestling here. I might link to some dumb Youtube clips. You probably won’t agree with everything I say. Even the positives are pretty negative. I don’t care; deal with it.
Best: Crown Their Ass!
"That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we're all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can even bring ourselves to even try to imagine..." -
This is UM football in 2013. It’s a collection of mismatched players and coaches groping in the dark at 2am, looking for a light switch that is connected to a single outlet with frayed wires that at any moment could spark and burn the whole house down. For 5 games, though, it was enough and UM kept on winning, despite enough “stirring” comebacks against mighty Akron and UConn that ESPN had a video montage queued up for late in the game. They probably should have lost a game before this one; now they have it out of the way so people can stop being teased with the least impressive run at perfection seen in Ann Arbor for decades. The house has officially burned down and now, perhaps, they can try to build something from the ashes.
UM is what we all thought they were; it just took the weirdest f’ing game to come to reality.
Supplementary Best: Now THAT’s MANBALL
And you know how people constantly argue over the meaning of MANBALL? Well, we just saw what it probably means to this staff and, really, throughout most UM history save for a divergence of sorts under RR. It’s about playing the percentages to an extent, but also cutting your playbook into a tiny sheet that says “Run dat ball dog!” and “Whatever, let Devin do something” once you get a 10-point lead. It means looking at your offensive line, seeing a bunch of first-year players and Schofield in the second half and figuring you might as well abandon the only positive running plays you have (read options and/or designed QB runs) for the same crappy -2-yard jabs into the line.
And perhaps most criminal of all, it’s relying on a college kicker, in a very hostile environment, to kick some game-winning FGs instead of trying for first downs in OT because you’re afraid of, I don’t know, turnovers or dragons or something equally asinine. I don’t care if Borges or Funk are around tomorrow, but this offensive staff has been stuck in this broken loop of playcalling for most of the year, and maybe a loss like this, the way it happened will snap them out of it. Or, you know…
For lack of a better term, once UM secured that 10-point lead Borges and Hoke adopted Heroball as the base offense: holding onto the ball until the last moment, telegraphing every play from a drastically shrunken playbook, and replacing any semblance of misdirection or creativity that got them that lead with predictable play-calling and the misguided hope that “everything will work out.” Well, it didn’t.
[Jump for Worst (ever).]
Quick programming note: I was traveling for the first half of this game, so outside of some radio coverage and phone updates I missed the first half. I did catch it on DVR, but skipped around when it became clear that about 1/3 of the half was Minny running a 16-play drive. I was back in the saddle for the second half.
I also apologize for the overly-effusive tone I’m going to take with this recap. After Akron and UConn, I’m just happy to write about a win that didn’t come down to the last drive. Please pick up your complimentary salt shakers before proceeding.
This is undoubtedly a pretty hacky way of saying this, but UM's 42-13 win against Minny was one that didn't feel nearly as one-sided as it looks on paper. On one hand, at no point did UM seem to be in danger of losing the contest; the only reason the score was so close at halftime was because UM had 4 drives that whole half and Minny wasted about 1/3 of it on a single TD drive that would have had the same effect as a Cialis for every announcer born between the years of 1930 and 1970. UM went the whole game without a TO, which is some type of record, and UM turned both Gopher TOs into 14 points. UM had 67 more yards, basically matched Minny on the ground, and averaged over 6.6 yards per play to Minny's 4.5 ypp. Outside of UTL II, this was the most complete performance by the team this season, even with the major caveat that Minnesota isn't really that good at football.
At the same time, unstoppable Minny Tebow Mitch Leidner averaged 6.9 ypa with a TD and added 66 yards on the ground, and Minnesota as a whole was able to move the ball semi-effectively all day; they drove deep into UM territory a couple of times in the 4th quarter but kicked FGs instead of TDs. Linebacker coverage continued to be an issue, as TE Maxx “The Extra ‘x’ is for Extra Max” Williams caught 5 passes for 57 yards and a TD and was consistently able to get separation. And two weeks after the defensive line seemingly awoke with 4 sacks against UConn, UM was limited to a single sack (by MGoForgottenSon Cam Gordon), and 3 QB hits.
Excuse me while I turn over this broken record, but the team remains a work in progress, and this most recent performance was a perfect embodiment its highlights as well as its lowlights. It remains a team that can beat a semi-competent football team by 29 with only 8 drives, but also let you see the numerous seams that can burst at any moment.
Best: “Inaccurate” Devin Gardner
I’ll get into the gong show that was the announcers in a bit, but Gardner had an incredibly efficient game throwing the ball. True, he was “bailed out” a couple of times by his receivers in the same way THAT EVERY QB SOMETIMES GETS BAILED OUT FNHJSADKFNSADKJFNSAD…sorry, got a little heated there. While he’s never going to have Taylor Martinez’s exquisite form on the long ball, Gardner still displayed a bit of happy feet that caused some balls to sail on him (a third-down incompletion that flew over Dileo’s head was pretty egregious) and/or hang up. [To his credit, he also had a beautiful throw to Funchess in the 4th quarter that set up a TD] Against a team with mediocre corners like the Gophers, his receivers were able to make adjustments and pull in catches reminiscent of Carr’s last game. Still, 13/17 for 235 and no turnovers is a certifiable revelation after the past couple of weeks, and credit to Borges for compressing the playbook a bit and running a fair number of 2 and semi-3 receiver plays so as to minimize the pressure Gardner was under. Listening on the radio, the announcers noted that UM’s protection schemes kept Devin clean for most of the game (only 1 sack), and Minnesota only hit him 2 other times. Just like I thought it was silly to read too much into his struggles the past couple of weeks, I’m not going to proclaim this performance a turning point in Gardner’s season, but one hopes that player and staff are getting more comfortable with each other and that results in the type of playcalling that maximizes the potential for an offense that has the ability to score on anyone.
Worst: Heel Announcers
There is a subset of visitors to this blog who find it inconceivable that people like professional wrestling, and references to it drive them to the comments to comment on how they gave up reading as soon as they saw it. So for those people, feel free to skip to the bottom (you’ll only miss one semi-logical diatribe and maybe 1/2 a joke).
Growing up, part of what made professional wrestling so much fun/infuriating to watch was the heel announcers like Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, Larry Zbyszko, and Jesse Ventura, who simultaneously trumped up the virtues of guys like “Ravishing” Rick Rude and Curt “Mr. Perfect” Henning while also pointing out the numerous logical inconsistencies that exist in the wrestling universe. [My favorite being Heenan pointing out the stupidity of fans chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” in a match between Canadian-born Bret Hart and kayfabe Japanese sumo wrestler Yokozuna.] In a medium that relies so heavily on arm-wavingly-obvious black and white knights, these announcers were the ultimate trolls on the mic, trying to convince 8-year-old me that a finger to the eye was accidental and manager interference didn’t occur while absolutely going (rightfully) ballistic when Hulk Hogan or Sting did the same thing and the crowd cheered.
Well, listening to this game on ESPN2 was about as much fun as listening to Michael Cole do anything during a match. By my rough calculations, the announcers droned on about Devin Gardner’s “poor” accuracy for 8.5 quarters of the game, and complained about a 30-yard completion to Gallon because it was behind him. Of course, later in the day the ESPN ticker pointed out that Gardner has the second-best QBR line of the day (94.2), and that included QBs who played against Temple, Georgia State, and Colorado. I know announcers wants to add drama to events that organically lack it, and Gardner clearly had some issue throwing the ball at times. But you could have left the door and some commentors from RCMB and Bucknuts could have taken a turn on the mic without people noticing a difference in quality. I suspect ESPN doesn’t care one bit, but when UM fans are clamoring for Spielman (who is fantastic) and Mason or Herbstreit (less so), you know you’re having troubles in the booth.
After finally conceding that Devin Funchess is mostly an oversized WR and not much of a TE, he exploded for a 7/151/1 TD line and showed just so scary he can be during the conference slate. He definitely needs to become at least a competent blocker to assure his time on the field, but his frying pan-sized hands and superior speed destroyed a Minnesota secondary has had a rough go of it already this year. Seeing how well Indiana cut up the PSU secondary this week, one can only hope that this type of performances by Funchess (and hopefully the rest of the receiving core) will continue.
Best: Offensive Line Optimism++
So yeah, I’m not an offensive line guru, and as noted above there was definitely a focus on increased protection, but it sure felt like the changes to the offensive line were for the positive. Glasgow handled the snapping duties pretty well, with only one exchange issue I noticed, and the amount of inside penetration seemed markedly down from the past couple of weeks. Bryant didn’t break anything, and Borges moved Jake Lewan around quite a bit to help establish the run, particularly at the start of both halves. While the stats were still unimpressive overall (3.3 ypc), Fitz was able to average 4.6 ypc and, more importantly, only had 1 negative run. Considering about a quarter of his runs against Akron resulted in negative yardage, this can only be considered a massive improvement. Just as important, the running performance was generated about as “organically” as you can expect given the personnel, with Devin only running 7 times for 17 yards (including the one sack) and a TD. Again, it is only one week, but the offensive line play was demonstrably better than the past couple of weeks, and even if that only grades out to average I’ll take it.
Best: So That’s What Linebackers Do
In the linebacker section of HTTV, Brian and co. were effusive about this unit being a strength of the defense even before Taylor Ryan returns from injury. It’s a unit with established players, some real depth, and the most likely place to see the words “heady”, “gritty”, and “disruptive”. But for the first 4 weeks of the season, it was a unit that seemed a bit out of place, facing quick-striking passing attacks that picked away at coverages and limited Mattison’s ability to unleash his second-wave rushers from the second line. But in this game, Minnesota seemed more than willing to test out the front seven early on, and even with some minor breakdowns I thought they acquitted themselves well. Morgan and Ross combined for 19 tackles, including 10 solo, and also recovered a fumble. Beyer added 4 more solo tackles, and as noted earlier Gordon picked up the one sack on the day. Coverage remains an issue that, frankly, may just be a weakness that won’t disappear without turnover and maturation, but overall it was a good day by a unit that was playing left-handed for large portions of the season.
Supplementary Best: Man in Black
(I know that’s super corny. Deal with it).
Special kudos should go out to Jibreel Black, who forced a fumble and who seemed to hold his own against a determined Minnesota offensive line. He’ll never be a great defensive tackle, but his speed inside has been a pleasant surprise this year, and as a long-time fan from back in the RR years I’m happy he’s having a good final season. I’m also less down on the defensive line in general despite limited pressure because Minnesota’s offensive philosophy was clearly designed to not force Leidner to hold the ball for long, and perhaps my expectations have been ratcheted down enough such that this felt like a competent performance. So, yea?
Worst: You can love your knowledge-All the things you learned in college
You know you can't go on kicking yourself
Until you’re more sore and you can never be warm.
And through the darkest hurts of the MRI's
That eats away as if the sun burst from the sky.
Due to my extreme Alt-Nation-y musical preferences, I’m not one to usually talk about my favorite bands because, well, I’ve seen High Fidelity and am totally fine being a square. But one of my favorite songs is College by Rogue Wave, a song seemingly crafted from the leftover crumbs of Simon and Garfunkel’s I Am a Rock. It’s seemingly-depressing lyrics about the largely-immutable characteristics of people and the cracks in even the most cultivated veneers are dressed up in catchy beats and and clean melodies. It’s either one of those songs where an artist experiments with the genre and listener’s expectations to craft something memorable, or they decided they had some lyrics and melody and what the hell, let’s throw them together and see what happens.
So what does this have to do with Michigan football? Well, my initial take was in reference to the still-undisclosed (at the time of this post) injury suffered by Ondre Pipkins late in the game, a game that was well in hand and that came, seemingly, due to an innocuous collision. Shortly thereafter, Kyle Kallis also went down with a less-serious injury, but still a reminder that injuries can happen at any time. Given UM’s shallow depth at certain positions, injuries take on greater significant and, unsurprisingly, a vocal group of fans tend to emerge decrying the “negligent” nature of leaving guys out there when the outcome is decided. I was going to argue that (putting on Herm Edwards hat) football is a violent, unpredictable game, the minute you play not to get hurt, that’s the minute you are most vulnerable, so players and coaches are hard-wired to suppress those concerns whenever possible. Not that it was requested or even necessary, but I was going to call for the exoneration of the coaching staff with any injuries that might come from this game, and for others to not worry about it.
Of course, that’s a bunch of crap. Not the part about the coaches and injuries – that’s the nature of the sport and it certainly wasn’t abnormal to leave in some players even with the game decided, especially when the limited depth means you only have a couple of players who could conceivably play those downs anyway. No, my issue with this initial take was the tone, that I was somehow clear-eyed and objectively viewing the proceedings without a gnawing, festering sense of doubt and dread lurking just below the surface. For the first time in what felt like eons (or, if you are a Gregorian calendar fan, 3 weeks), the team was playing pretty well in all three facets, and so ofcourse important people started to get hurt against freaking Minnesota. This may be one of the less impressive 5-0 outfits you’ll see in football, but it is still an undefeated team and as such my illogical fandom expects this team to go 13-0 every year. Injuries aren’t supposed to happen, and when they do all of those lost games and missed opportunities because Henne can’t move his shoulder and Antonio Bass tears up his knee come rushing back. Ugly wins sting more than blowout losses, and the Horror and the last play of the Alamo Bowl run on infinite loops in my brain. One should never stop, for it is bat country.
In my day-to-day operations I consider myself pretty even-keel and thoughtful, an “educated” man with an appropriate worldview, capable of understanding that two teams matriculating a piece of leather up and down a field doesn’t mean much compared to wars, disease, economic collapse, and the rest of the human condition’s underbelly. But every Saturday in the fall, I devolve into the type of guy who watches youtube clips of famous motivational speeches from movies, who cries out for every phantom hold and missed pass interference, who only knows that the other team is full of cheaters, thugs, and idiots, and who wants nothing more than a victory and a “Hail to the Victors” as a nightcap. I love my admittedly one-sided relationship with UM and its football team, but it has definitely helped to expose the inner lunatic that resides in me (and I presume in a significant portion of its fandom).
Worst: Big Turrible
By gawd was that a depressing weekend in conference football outside of the UM game. Michigan State and Iowa rock-fought to a 26-14 final that was every bit as painful as it sounds, and Nebraska beat another one of those schools from the Great Plains that feels like it was made up by a video game’s random-name generator, but not before giving up 17 first-quarter points. Indiana pantsed PSU, proving that neither team is particularly good at defense but at least IU can score, and gave UM fans hopes of a nice 3-week lead-up to the first meaningful game of the conference slate in East Lansing. And to top it off, NW totally unexpectedly and without precedent blew a late lead to OSU, giving us all another week of undefeated talk out of Columbus for what may be the least impressive 18-0 run in the history of college football. I know people continue to question how good UM is, and I guess the answer is “not great, but have you seen these other guys?” No teams other than Clemson, Stanford, and Oregon have really looked dominant all year (apologies to FSU and Louisville), but even the best teams in this conference look a clear step or two behind the leaders in the other AQ conferences besides the AAC. On one hand it means UM will probably finish with a better record than I initially expected, but on the other hand it portends a pretty ugly bowl season.
Due to time constraints and the fact that broken records sound even worse the second time around, I promise this post will be considerably abbreviated compared to earlier entries. To offset what I can only imagine will be a massive downgrade in creativity and humor, I will employ the time-honored and totally not schmaltzy “theme” for this week’s synopsis. I leave it to the reader to determine just what that through line is.
Worst: Ruff Offense
Let me set the stage for you: In a flurry to end the 3rd quarter, UM finished off an epic 75-yard drive with Toussaint’s 35-yard TD run, cutting UConn’s lead to 21-14 (!). The defense then weathered a couple of early completions to force UConn into a long FG attempt, which they missed. So UM took over, down 7 with the ball and driving to start the 4th quarter. A personal foul call on UConn set the Wolverines up on the 31 yard line, and it looked like the team was finally starting to find its “white people dancing at a wedding”-level rhythm offensively.*
On the first play, Al Borges looked into the BAD (Burn Another Down) part of the playbook and called a Fitz run that I can only imagine ended with him running into 1 or more offensive linemen’s posteriors 3 yards in the backfield and scampering forward for no gain. (Yes, this is foreshadowing). On second down, UConn’s totally unstoppable 4-man rush got pressure up the middle and flushed Gardner to the right side, where he held onto the ball while the 14-year-old controlling him kept pressing the stiff-arm and spin buttons instead of throwing the ball away, resulting in a 3rd and 17. The next play, at this point either a designed run or a de-facto run considering both the pressure Gardner was under and his clear discomfort in throwing the ball deep, resulting in a 15-yard pickup and 4 and 2 at the UConn 23.
Down 7 and with no promise that the offense would be that close to scoring again, Brady Hoke left the offense out there. As people noted in the liveblog, if UM isn’t able to get two measly yards against UConn, then so be it. After a Husky TO to think it over (I’m sure the conversation went along the lines of “easily dispatch of the offensive lineman in front of you and tackle the guy with the ball, fine gentlemen” because that seemed to be all UConn defenders needed to know on this night and apparently every conversation in my head is sponsored by Foppish Dandys), the playcall was the most obvious QB keeper possible, which still nearly worked except Devin fumbled the ball near the first-down marker and recovered about a foot and a half short. Turnover on downs, cats went running, beers were spilled, various furniture was kicked, etc.
If there was a better microcosm of UM’s offense the past couple of weeks, I’d like to see it. Against Notre Dame, I compared UM’s attack to a stacked Madden offense and wondered if it was the best/most dynamic of the last 15 years. In the last two games, against two of the worst defenses statistically in the FBS, UM has had 25 meaningful drives and recorded 7 TDs versus 9 TOs, including 2 that were returned for TDs by the opposition. It is an offense in free-fall, unable to really do anything particularly well outside of letting Devin run for his life or test Jeremy Gallon’s ability to enter inner orbit by throwing at the garden gnome standing on top of his helmet. I’ll get into more detail about the various faces of the offense below, but this display was actually more disheartening than against Akron simply because the last game felt like it could be chalked up to under-preparedness and/or lackadaisical play; a week later it sure seemed like UM was trying to get yardage and UConn would have none of it.
* Full disclosure: I’m a pretty stereotypical white guy, and my wedding (despite having a pretty kick-ass hora in this Gentile’s opinion), would have probably been a decent backdrop for a Dave Chappelle bit.
Worst: Stop digging!
Remember when Devin Gardner was spinning away from trouble and scampering for first downs, throwing bullets while under pressure, or calmly throwing the ball out of bounds when, heaven forbid, he was flushed from the pocket? Yeah, those were the days…of early September.
Last year, one of the things this blog and others raved about Devin was his field vision and willingness to keep looking downfield, trying to make a play with either his arm or his legs, unafraid to throw the ball out of bounds Now, every time he feels pressure (read: virtually every time he steps back to pass), he’s spinning around aimlessly or immediately tucking the ball and taking a loss even when he is a decent subway ride from the pocket. On the last drive of the 1st quarter, Gardner took a 16-yard loss scrambling around the field, never once seemingly contemplating throwing the ball away. Though he had thrown an INT on the last drive, it was this play that seemed the far more onerous one, portending a remarkably frustrating outing for a player that was seemingly exceeding the massive hype he had coming into the season. He went from being the best QB in the conference not backing up Braxton Miller to leading the nation in INTs (and I presume TOs though I don’t have that stat in front of me), and being one of the top 30 scoring players in the conference based on points scored for the other team.
Most of those turnovers are the result of simply trying to do too much: throwing across his body while being chased, trying to thread a ball through 3 defenders, lobbing bombs that come up short or are off the mark, failing to protect the ball because he is trying to twist, juke, or stretch for a couple more yards. And all this adds up to ever-deeper holes that UM has to ever-more-desperately try to climb out of. Down 3 late to Akron after seemingly having the game in hand entering the 4th quarter mushroomed into being down 14 to UConn midway into the 3rd quarter. While this phenomenon is certainly not solely due to Gardner’s play, he remains the focal point of a sputtering unit that must return to at least competent form if this team stands any chance in this division, let alone against some high-profile bowl opponent in the future.
Best: Just Roll with It
So for the first time all season, someone other than Gardner broke 100 yards rushing AND 5 ypc. It wasn’t pretty by any stretch, as Fitz had 12 of his 14 runs go for 3 yards or less, including a couple of times where he received the ball effectively off Miller’s ass as he was driven yards into the backfield. It remains very feast-and-famine with him lugging the ball, with about 30% of his 120 yards coming on the long TD run to halve the deficit in the 3rd quarter. Though the team as a whole failed to break 4 yards per carry, some of that can be attributed to some ill-timed runs by Gardner that resulted in lost yardage or minimal gain. And yes, I recognize just how poor the UConn defense was coming into the game; I woke up this morning muttering “Towson” and cursing the liveblog for reminding me of it, though it should be noted that the Tigers are 4-0 and have been obliterating teams so far this season.
For better or for worse, though, this is probably the best fans can hope for this outfit during the conference slate: a depressing number of minimal gains punctuated by some massive runs from Gardner as well as Fitz when he is able to make the first 2 or 3 guys miss. It will obviously be imperative for the line and TEs to cut down on holding penalties and other self-inflicted wounds, and someone needs to send whatever football-related methodone is required to wean Borges off his addiction to inside “power” runs, but I thought Fitz ran better in that second half (81 yards and 2 TDs with only 1 negative run and a couple rushes for no gain), and combined with Gardner’s mobility (provided he HOLDS ONTO THE DAMN BALL!) could provide a reasonably approximation to the rushing attack from 2011.
I do expect that some of the freshmen will see more time after the bye week, but I find it telling that Smith only played on special teams and Green didn’t touch the ball once all game. Minny’s highly-ranked, if lightly-tested, rushing defense should be a decent barometer as to whether this was a return of sorts for the running game or baseless optimism.
Worst: Now It’s Just Embarrassing
And you thought it couldn’t get worst than last week against Akron for this offensive line? Well, look what just happened, strawperson who watches UM football and thinks things can’t get any worse. UM’s line got served* by a unit that came into the game without a sack and 6 TFL’s (they record 3 and 10, respectively, against the Wolverines), and added 3 more QB hits. And beyond the obvious stats, there were numerous times when 3 and 4-man rushes were either driving Gardner from the pocket or forcing Fitz to bounce to the outside on runs. It was a dominating performance the likes of which people expected from Notre Dame’s NFL-stacked line, not the ramshackle one in Storrs.
While I want to believe that there will be changes made to the line during the bye week, what troubles me is that outside of Bryant at guard, I’m not sure who one can reasonably expect to step in and be an upgrade over the players already logging the reps. I mean, the guys out there won whatever amounted to “competitions” for these spots going into the season; to expect someone to come out of the woodworks (beyond major position shifts) seems like a pipedream. There should be some natural improvements just through familiarity and experience, especially at RG with Kallis, but it will fall on Borges and Funk to figure out a workable solution with the pieces they have on the field, a solution significantly better than the product that’s be trotted out there so far.
* In the same vein as my complaints about Varsity Blues movie logic issues, how did the the officials of the dancing competition at the end of You Got Served allow two teams team up, plus add about 10 new members, prior to the finals? Perhaps they were blinded by Steve Harvey’s teeth.
Meh: Air Dud
I’m breaking out the rare “Meh” when it comes to the receivers this game. Gardner was a mess, completing less than 50% of his passes and throwing 2 INTs. He locked onto Gallon a couple of times, one leading to the first INT, and was bouncing or sailing balls to open receivers throughout the game. At first blush I thought the receivers and ends were having trouble getting open, but on a couple of those tuck-and-runs in the second half it looked like Gardner ran through his progressions in about half a second and, either because of real or perceived pressure, just took off and ran the ball. This unit remains distressingly shallow in consistent playmakers (basically Gallon and that’s it), but there is only so much they can do when the defense is able to get pressure and stop the run without giving up coverage. As Chris Spielman (*shudder*) accurately pointed out, UConn didn’t respect UM’s running game and, thus, stayed back in coverage and really limited what UM’s offense could do throwing the ball. Given the fact that the Huskies were breaking in basically a whole new secondary, this was an opportunity for the receivers to reestablish some consistency we saw earlier in the season, and opportunity that they (get ready for the pun) dropped.
Best: Release the Chess-hound!
I do want to point out that Jehu Chesson again showed flashes of the playmaker this team desperately needs to complement Gallon and Dileo. I know he over-ran the ball on Gardner’s second INT and under-ran a probably TD after he beat the UConn coverage by a step in the 4th quarter, but on both plays you saw the speed people raved about. Both misplays seem to be due as much to inexperience as anything else, as freshmen coming from programs where QB play was sub-optimal are want to struggle with ball tracking in the air. Still, I expect him to continue to make strides in the passing game as the season progresses.
Also, he absolutely trucked UConn punt returners on two plays, including forcing a fumble that was recovered by the Huskies in that first half. He’s clearly not afraid of contact and, more importantly, is big enough to actually do something about it. Given the continuing struggles of the TEs to block in the running game, this physicality needs to continue.
Best: Here they come!
Only because of the offensive line’s continued struggles has the defensive line’s woes been (slightly) overlooked, but in this game they finally were able to generate both a consistent pass rush as well as a stout-ish run defense. UConn averaged under 2 ypc and under 5 ypa if you ignore the 26-yard completion on 4th-and-30 to end the game, and UM recorded 4 sacks to go along with 4 additional TFLs. Frank Clark recorded 2 of those sacks to go along with 5 tackles total, and Jibreel continued his solid season by recording half a sack to go along with 6 tackles and consistently getting penetration inside. Black will never be your prototypical tackle, and he probably won’t be able to hold up against bruising lines dedicated to running the ball (i.e. Minny in two weeks), but the “poor man’s Brandon Graham” analogies don’t seem off.
The secondary remains a work in progress, but it held up reasonably well. They were bailed out a bit by Geremy Davis’s overturned TD catch in the end zone, but (I believe) that was followed up by the punting fiasco that led to UConn’s last score. The LB’s in coverage remain troubling (I know, except for that one really GOOD thing I detail below), and guys seemed to find a way to get open up the seams way more frequently than UM’s guys do.
It wasn’t a dominant performance by any means, but it was a positive sign after not being able to generate anything resembling a defense in the second half last week against Akron. UConn barely broke 200 yards in total offense, only one drive longer than 40 yards, and 14 of those 21 points were either on the offense or special teams. Let’s hope this is a return of the Swag.
Best: Air Bud II: Morgan’s Electric Boogaloo
“Woodsonian” is both a strong and made-up word, but Morgan’s game-changing INT was a thing of beauty and really seemed to energize the team. I know there are different schools of thought regarding momentum, and I’m generally not a believer in any long-term effect, but I do think that it can exist within a small context, such as a single game or even just a half. UM looked horrible for most of the game offensively, and UConn had just stuffed Gardner’s 4-down conversion attempt. The defense had been on the field for large swaths of the game, and any score by UConn probably would have meant the game. So when Morgan skied for that pick and returned it to the 12, UM had new life. On the next play, Fitz took the ball outside and scored the tying TD. From that point on, UConn recorded 1 first down and 26 total yards on 2 drives, basically all those yards coming on a meaningless completion on 4th down. He didn’t “save” the season by any stretch, but it was the play of the game.
Worst: No More Norfleeting?
I’m definitely keeping my head on a swivel watching out for the banhammer on this one, but I’m starting to think the potential of Norfleet may never live up to the actual product on the field. He has seemingly lost the faith of the coaching staff on punt returns after muffing a couple in the past weeks, and while he remains a kickoff threat he’s rarely used in the offense except on obvious running plays and (maybe) a couple of passing routes when the team goes empty backfield. He remains very fast but has a season long of 15 yards as a receiver and one 38-yard run against CMU. He also has a penchant for getting tripped up on contact, and while that isn’t unexpected for such a small guy, it also doesn’t warrant much in the way of additional playing time.
Worst: Hold Onto the Damn Ball!
I noted this already, but UM lost the turnover battle 5 to 1, and while the Jones kicking the ball on punt coverage was just poor luck (it seemed like either a lack of communication or awareness that led to him being so close), the other 4 TOs were absolutely in the flow of the offense. Cut that number in half and I think UM wins this comfortably; they’ve been “lucky” the past couple of weeks that the opponents haven’t been able to really capitalize. I’m not saying Hoke needs to break out the duct tape, but the ball needs to stop hitting the ground or landing in other teams’ hands.
On the positive side, Wile booted 5 punts for an average of 42 yards, and Uconn nearly returned the punt turnover favor on Chesson’s big hit. So after last week’s Shankapalooza, it was nice to see UM even out the field position battle. Plus, Gibbons hit another FG, adding his name to another record.
Worst: Seriously, State of Connecticut?
I commented on the liveblog that apparently the University of Connecticut paid for the new seats they added to the stadium by diverting pay from groundskeeping, because that field was horrible. I’ve seen moderately-sized HSes with better turf, and it clearly affected both teams throughout the game. Coupled with the fact that the stadium is across from a Cabela’s and is 30 miles(!!) away from the main campus, and you can see why everyone except Connecticut’s AD was pushing for the game to be played at a bigger, better stadium. I get not every school will have the type of tradition and facilities as UM, but this is (in theory) the major state school in one of the richest states in the US; they should be able to provide a better gameday experience.
Best: Bye Week! Let’s All Get Excited!
Next week being a bye means I can finally get back to working…I mean doing work around the house…I mean spending more time with BronxBlueWife…I mean playing GTA V. Yeah, that sounds right.
I know you feel, John…
Worst: Totally Meta
To let you in a bit on how the sausage is made with one of these posts, I usually sit down with my laptop during the game and play around in the liveblog while taking some really cursory notes. While I’m sure I could figure out how to watch lineplay and defensive adjustments intricately in order to make really astute observations about particular players, there are lots of people here at MGoBlog who do a great job with that level of detail and, frankly, I doubt I’d be able to add much. No, the Best and Worst is all about a layman’s observations of a game, with (I hope) a bit of humor, some fun long-form ideas, and insufferable references to wrestlers and 90’s television shows.
Well, usually my notes take on a bit of a narrative as a game progresses; I inevitably start ordering comments into Offense, Defense, Special Teams, Coaching, etc. buckets, so by the end I’ve got my talking points, as they are, laid out. Given the opponent, I figured they’d be succinct and pretty general; it’s hard to derive too much from a blowout.
Well, by the last 4 minutes of the game, my notes spanned 2 pages typed and, if my keyboard was both sentient and possessed the necessary funds to file documents with a court, would be Exhibit A of a battery suit brought against me. People joke about how typing “OMFG” or “ROFL” negates the emotion you are attempting to convey, like telling someone how funny something is instead of actually laughing. But part of the reason you use these shorthands, though, is because “nfsakjf528095353u55b25jewrnijrggrehjigh3u04u-421” followed by your dog fleeing the room is hard to convey in words. So yeah, based on my notes…
Worst: Goliath has Fans Too
I’m usually not one to complain too much about announcers except if they go full Spielman and openly root for one team over the other, but the announcers were extremely excited about the possibility of Akron beating UM. And that got me thinking; seemingly everyone loves the David vs. Goliath matchups that end with David victorious. At first blush, it totally makes sense; David represents the everyman, overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds with character, ingenuity, and guile. To root for David is to root for the human spirit and the impossible dream. Rooting for Goliath is like rooting for the house in blackjack.
But here’s the thing; being “Goliath” is not free of context, nor is it purely a “you vs. them” dynamic wherein everyone agrees how the story should end. In other words, Goliath has fans too, and in most cases they don’t view themselves as the bully, the victor, the unstoppable force OR the immovable object. Goliath is just a guy who is blessed with some physical advantages that he honed with rigorous training and passionate loyalty to a cause. In the eyes of Goliath, he’s entering into fair combat against another warrior who just happens to be smaller than him and who wields a slingshot. He’s not Razor Ramon or Vince McMahon, “heels” personified who want nothing more than to ruin the face’s day. No, He’s not the “bad guy”, unless “being tall and strong” and winning most of the time are dastardly traits. He is the Big Bad because the only lens used to view him is as the seemingly unattainable or antithesis model, the personification of David’s shortcomings.
So saying you love David vs. Goliath games is really saying you like to see the big guy lose not necessarily because you have a rooting interest in David or against Goliath, but because you don’t want to be reminded that not everyone has David’s problems. On some level, you hold Goliath’s strengths and accomplishments against him, believing something must be cosmically wrong to explain his winning ways, and that a loss will somehow right this off-kilter universe.
But that really isn’t fair to either party; Akron is just a bad FBS program trying to find its footing and UM is the winningest program in college football history. UM has all of those wins because, for most of its existence, it has fielded talented, well-coached teams that beat other ones on the football field. Akron, not so much, but that isn’t because of something UM did. And, humorously, the tables are turned in the other “football”: Akron has been one of the best college soccer teams for years now while UM is the “upstart” that scored a major 1-0 upset over the Zips a couple of years ago during an otherwise poor season.
I’d say millions of people partook in today’s game in some way (live, TV, radio, internet, etc.), and a significant number of them are probably fans of UM football. They wanted to see UM win for any number of reasons, and few if any thought Akron winning would be a “good thing”. Russians certainly didn’t think losing to the US at the Olympics was a good idea, nor are Phi Slamma Jamma fans clamoring for Lorenzo Charles (RIP) memorial jerseys, and I’m guessing Lloyd Carr isn’t sending Armanti Edwards holiday cards. Had Akron pulled off the win, it would have been heralded as a huge upset both for the year as well as historically, and people who “like” upsets would have another moment to cheer about. But for the fans of Goliath, David is just the guy who got lucky, and no amount of culturally-endorsed schadenfreude will change that.
Today’s game ended with Goliath winning, though it was obviously closer than expected. The narrative is that Akron gave UM all they could handle, and that in a game of inches UM got lucky that Akron came up a bit short. But it was a game that both teams had a chance to win, and this time Goliath benefitted from a missed opportunity; history hasn’t always been so kind. I’m certainly not going to complain.
Worst: It’s a Win? (as said in the voice of Ron Burgundy)
Yeah, I’m not going to be one of those people who says it would have been a better “learning experience” if they had lost; I’m a results-based grader so a win is always better than a loss. That said, this is up there with narrowly beating Indiana and Illinois under RR and a turrible 10-7 win against 5-6 Utah in 2002 (a game I attended and apparently blocked from my memory until now). And unlike those games where you could at least point to one element of the performance being a positive, it isn’t really hypoerbole or “ESPN talking head”-ole to say UM was beat in all three phases of the game.
Best: It’s a Win
But it’s a victory for UM, and 3-0 is 3-0. Just ask MSU, whose offense finally eclipsed the defense is scoring 3 games into the season. Teams have bad games, and for all of the hell the players are likely to have rain down on them by the coaching staff this week, it would be immensely worse if Saturday’s game had ended with an “L” on the schedule. This game probably ratchets down the expectations a notch if you saw UM as a top-5 outfit, but otherwise it was a close shave for a team with top-15 talent. Given the number of massive upsets this year, it could have been far worse.
I know the Internet is the ultimate echo chamber for cynicism, and this blog’s particular composition only accentuates that property, but just like was a need to pump the brakes a bit after the ND game, this game doesn’t not necessarily mean you need to stock your panic room quite yet.
Best: I don’t want…your life!
One of the more underrated moments in Varsity Blues is the “hungover” game played by the West Canaan Coyotes after Mox, Tweeder, Billy Bob, Wendell, and Lance spent a night at the Landing Strip Gentleman’s Club*. Hungover and clearly off their game, they lose in embarrassing fashion and Bud Kilmer turns to threatening Mox about his scholarship to Brown if he doesn’t shape up and fall in line.
In no way am I insinuating that UM’s play against Akron was caused by every starter heading off to Deja Vu in Ypsi Thursday night, but it clearly looked like a team that was out of sorts from the outset. UM did force a 3-and-out on Akron’s first drive and followed it up with the long TD by Funchess, but for most of that first half the offense looked lost and the defense held tough but couldn’t generate much of a pass rush. And once the 2nd half began and Akron made some adjustments offensively, the defense struggled to keep them off the field. Plus, Gibbons missed his first kick since Purdue and Matt Wile shanked a couple of punts, resulting in an average of 33 yards per kick despite “booming” one 54 yards. As a couple of people noted (including Ace), if it was against any other team but Akron, UM probably would have been run off the field. But still, just a disorienting performance.
Of course, Notre Dame also had a pretty off performance against Purdue, so who knows where everyone was last night.
* I know this is saying a great deal in a movie where James Van Der Beek is a Texas QB, literally every play is either a bone-shattering tackle or a 50-yard TD (seriously, watch the clip and you’ll see 4-5 NFL Blitz-style flying tackles), and a HS team is allowed to basically coach itself once Jon Voight leaves at halftime – you’ll notice no assistant coaches take over or are even on the screen, but the most unbelievable part of that movie is a HS health teacher moonlighting as a stripper in a city of, oh, 10,000 people in Texas and NOBODY notices until some HS kids see her act. I mean, that club looked packed on (I’m guessing) a weekday night, and early on the movie establishes that Miss Davis must be making decent money from her dancing in order to afford a Mustang convertible, so it is clearly a popular place. Yet her double life remains a mystery both before and after this night. Simply unbelievable.
UM averaged 5.5 ypc* and 8.3 ypa** while holding the Zips to 3.6 ypc*** and 6.3 ypa**** which look good on paper, but as the astute reader might have picked up, those little *’s aren’t just looking for a party to crash; they are massive caveats. First the rushing: Gardner averaged 10.3 ypc on his 103 yards, showcasing the game-breaking speed that can turn a collapsing pocket into a 36 yard TD. Fitz recorded 71 more yards on 19 carries, but didn’t crack 4 ypc against the #80 rushing defense in the country. And while I initially thought he was the recipient of some bad luck out there due to penalties on runs, the only one apparently was a holding penalty by Gallon on a 3-yarder. Of his 19 carries, 7 were for losses and 8 were for minimal gain (though one was the TD). He recorded 65 yards on 4 other carries, and added a nice 27 yard reception to goose the numbers up a bit. On most runs he was engulfed in the backfield or had trouble locating holes either because they weren’t there or a momentary hesitation closed them too quickly. I’ll get into my feelings about the line play later, but this was not a banner day for a guy who has played reasonably well this year given the obvious issues in front of him.
As for that 8.3 ypa, that is .7 ypa below Akron’s 114th-ranked pass defense, and came with a 53% completion perctange and 3 INTs, including a horrible screen-ish pass that was returned for a TD. Nobody other than Gallon caught more than 2 passes, and while Funchess had a nice day on paper with a TD and 65 yards on his two catches, one was a 48-yard TD run that was aided by some poor angles and tackling by Akron, a theme they continued on Chesson’s only catch (and first of his career) on the day, a 33-yard TD where he was pinballed toward the endzone by an Akron defender. Criminally underused Drew Dileo was held without a catch, so hopefully this week Brian will be able to release that particular Kraken.
The defense did marginally better, holding Akron to about their season average rushing and about a yard less passing, but those numbers were put up against UCF and the zombified remains of the 4th President of the United States, er, eponymously-named FCS James Madison University. And Akron had 4 drives longer than 45 yards, including two 11-play drives that ended with a TD and the final drive, as well as a 5-play drive that ended with Wilson’s INT in the endzone. UM could not get Akron off the field in the 4th, including giving up a number of long completions and “they only need 5 yards for the first down, let’s give the slot receiver a 10-yard cushion” plays.
So yeah, statistics should be trusted only as far as they can be thrown, which against UM’s defense today is apparently both quite far and with minimal coverage.
Okay, okay, that’s a little mean. But it was pretty bad out there.
Worst: Push it!
So you know how earlier I mentioned that statistics sometimes lie? Well, a big reason why UM’s running game struggled was the continued inability of the offensive line to consistently block for anyone. Against Akron, Fitz had 15 carries that resulted in either lost yardage or minimal gains, and a significant number of them were because one or more Akron defenders were in the backfield rather quickly. It remains a team that is strong on the edges (though both Lewan and Schofield missed a couple of blocks) and “maturing” or “weak” (depending on your viewpoint) in the middle. Akron didn’t seem like it was doing anything special defensively, yet they always seemed to have the number’s advantage at the point of attack. And while they only recorded a single sack, Gardner was harassed most of the day by the line without excessive use of blitzes or disguised coverages. I’m not expecting major changes on the line next week, but this is a team that can’t consistently get 4-5 yards a pop on the ground without the QB getting involved, and that is not a sustainable situation during the conference season unless Devin remains healthy throughout, which would be a minor miracle.
As for the defensive line, to say the “Right to Rush 4” mantra needs to be redefined would be an understatement. A unit with a decent amount of hype heading into the season failed to register a sack on 49 attempts, though the defense was credited with 8 QB hits. Still, it took an all-out blitz to get pressure on the QB to end the game (reminiscent of the Points-a-Palooza some years back), and when your undersized tackle (Black) is your most consistent pass rusher against a MAC team, that isn’t good news. I guess the jury is still out on Frank Clark, but at this point the judge expects to hear a verdict by the end of lunch. It certainly didn’t help that Mattison seemed reticent about using more than 4 linemen to get pressure, and as a couple of people noted in the Liveblog the stunting was glaringly obvious, but again you shouldn’t have to overly gameplan for a team coming off a 1-11 season.
Best: Times are Changing
Now, I know I just spent a couple of sections dumping on Akron and minimizing their influence on today, but they deserve quite a bit of credit for playing UM to a standstill. Maybe 25-30 years teams like Akron are just happy to be playing in the Big House and are overwhelmed by the moment, but in today’s college football ecosystem everybody believes his team can beat anyone else. For even with Akron’s fallow history, it is still an FBS team with D1 players on it, and given the exposure and resources available to virtually all such programs nobody should be surprised they didn’t just wilt as soon as The Victors played. Terry Bowden may have looked like he ate his daddy Bobby before the game, but he’s still got a career record of 142-75-2 (including 47-17-1 while at Auburn), and certainly knows how to beat teams like UM. They played solid, largely mistake-free football and took advantage of UM’s miscues. They played like a major college football team, and this game should be yet another reminder that “MACrifices” isn’t a reality in today’s football landscape.
Best: Tackling, and the Lack Thereof (part deux)
Last week I mentioned how refreshing it was seeing the other team (in that case, ND) miss some crucial tackles while UM largely wrapped up quickly. Well, count both Funchess’s and Chesson’s TDs as beneficiaries of some dodgy tackling by the Zips. By comparison, UM typically tackled guys at contact, though Jourdan Lewis had a pretty bad “tackle” of Pohl as he rushed for a first down late in the game. There were also the coverage issues with the corners and linebackers, especially in the middle of the field where D’Orazio was seemingly open all day. This definitely felt like a gameplan limitation, at least initially, but it was troubling that late in the game receivers were able to get open in the secondary with players trailing them by 2-3 yards.
Worst: Hitting Reset
Last week I waxed poetically about Gardner being a modern-day unstoppable video game QB, UM’s answer to Michael Vick circa Madden 2004. He was like UTG Trevor Siemian crossed with a mongoose, and it was glorious. Like Vick in the game, it just felt unfair to have him on your team, and to talk about him in front of your vanquished opponent is to welcome scorn and possibly some shoving.
Well, against Akron people saw the other side of the videogame analogy: when the computer “cheats” and everything that could possibly go wrong does. Suddenly, your all-world QB can’t complete a pass except to the other team, your RB can’t get a yard beyond the line of scrimmage, you are getting called for penalties on any positive play, and even digital Texas’s GERG thinks you are playing too soft defensively. By the time a defensive end houses an interception off a screen pass, you’re diving for the reset button while cursing Alan Turing and his stupid face.
Of course, in real life that’s just the third quarter of the game, and you still have to watch and hope that somehow, someway your team figures it all out enough to pull out a victory. Against Akron, Gardner and the offense did just enough in the end for the win, and on a seemingly snakebitten game they can lick their wounds and give it another shot.
Best: Even YMRMFSPA had Bad Games
So the Vince Young analogies have been trotted out for Devin since his game against Northwestern, and with his improvisational skills, strong arm, and galloping strides it is hard not to see a bit of the college star in him. Unfortunately, Gardner also showed the same characteristics that drove Texas fans crazy early on in Young’s career, with 4 turnovers, including a TaINT, and some happy feet that resulted in missed receptions and poor throws. If you check out Young’s gamelog from his first full season, you’ll see the same tantalizing mix of promise and growing pains: 5 TDs against no turnovers against Texas Tech following 8/23 for 86 yards against Oklahoma and 3/9 with 2INTs against Missouri. After those games, people we calling for Chance Mock to play at QB, and if that name doesn’t ring a bell it’s because he didn’t do anything to make people forget about Young. People in A2 forget this because of the game Young had against the Wolverines in the Rose Bowl, but Young finished with a 12:11 ratio on the season and had some tough performances even in wins. The next year he emerged as a breakthrough player and led Texas to the title.
I’m not saying Gardner is going to do that, but this game was a reminder of how fickle and infuriating the maturation process can be at times, and that the same player can have a stinker like today AND a performance against ND without there being anything wrong with him. I suspect he’ll play better next week, but regardless of his performance it won’t change this past game or how the future plays out. Every game is another data point, and sometimes you don’t realize there are outliers until time and distance it provides have given you some perception. Gardner wasn’t a Heisman winner after last week and he’s not a bum after this one, but instead a work in progress like the rest of the team.
I’m wheeling out my extra-tall soapbox now, so if you don’t want to hear my complain about fandom in general and UM followers in particular, feel free to skip to the next section.
What has always driven me crazy about the fandom in sports is the moralizing and dime-store psychoanalysis people place on players’ motivations. A team plays well and people lionize the “heart” shown by the winners while questioning that of the loser. Every down and distance becomes a Greek tragedy played out with a pigskin, and we want to equate higher meaning with 3rd-down conversions and missed blocks. But that’s the thing – it’s just a game, and teams win and lose, players play well or poorly, for reasons that have nothing to do with their moral fiber or ability to “lead” men.
Both during and after the game, there was a contingent of fans who tried to make the game a referendum on these players. They questioned the leadership displayed by Taylor Lewan apparently not getting the line “up” to block, as if Kalis, Miller, and Glasgow would have held their blocks if only they had cared more. Gardner threw INTs not because he made a bad read or had a bit of bad luck, but because he wasn’t a leader out there and his receivers didn’t have confidence in him. And in the postgame, when both Lewan and Gardner said they promised a better effort next week, people on the blog questioned their motives and suggested they had “heard this before” and UM still lost, proving that fans shouldn’t operate heavy machinery following a game because their blindness will undoubtedly cause accidents.
Sports were oftentimes used as stand-ins for battle both in real life as well as in narrative devices; we speak of “warriors of the gridiron” and its bond with iconography of good vs. evil and right vs. wrong is hard to ignore. But in the end, sport is just a game, with winners and losers according to the rules of the contest. To try to derive some greater meaning from it, to look deep into a man’s soul on a 3-yard run at the end of the game and hope to identify his humanity, is a foolish exercise. I know people will continue to act this way long after I’m cold and in the ground, but I still hope that one day sports will be treated as the athletic contests they are, not the day of reckoning some yearn for them to embody.
Best: Quick Hits
A couple of points that aren’t really worth their own sections:
- I thought the secondary played okay, though the middle of the field was open seemingly for days at a time. They also seemed to line up yards off receivers that didn’t seem able to really beat them in a race. And to Akron’s credit, a couple of long receptions were the result of good throws; the one where I believe Taylor was beaten down the sideline in the 4th quarter by Smith was a great throw as much as any failure by the coverage. That said, surprised Lewis got the nod over Stribling out there, especially given the size differences.
- Al Borges called a decent enough game in my opinion, though he seemed afraid of running the veer too much early on even though Akron had no answer. The inability of the line to run block certainly didn’t help; when UM needed yards late in the game they ran directly behind Lewan, which was obviously a positive but not great news for your inside running game.
- I remain puzzled that Hoke did not go for it at 4-and-1 on UM’s 45 early on in the 4th quarter. The numbers say putning is the right call, but one yard with Gardner in the gun seems quite doable. I’m not a big fan of “momentum”, but getting a yard there gives UM a fresh set of downs and doesn’t put the ball on the foot of your admittedly-skittish punter who proceeded to shank the ball anyway. Plus, I believe this was right after Akron nearly blocked the last punt.
- Norfleet appears to have lost return privileges at least on punts, with Dileo back there in the second half. That feels about right; I know Norfleet has shown great potential, but he continues to make the routine catches scary and still doesn’t seem to have a great sense of how to handle returns. And with Dileo back there, it allowed the BTN announcers to talk about how he can run in space. Because if there is one element of Dileo’s game we can ALL agree on, it is his blazing speed in space.
Best: Release the Hounds
The good news is that the UConn Huskies are an absolute tire-fire and UM should be rather motivated heading into the Cabella’s parking lot er Husky Stadium next week. I hope for everyone’s sake it is a short game and next week’s recap is “Best: Everything.”
So I missed most of this game initially; had family over and only saw parts of the 3rd quarter live while the rest was from a DVR re-watch. Thus, I ignored most of the commentary, stopping only to watch Marshall Mathers absolutely trolling Musberger and Herbie in the booth. That was good fun.
One advantage of DVR’ing the game and watching it largely divorced from the in-the-moment fandom gives you a different appreciation for what happened on a per-play basis but, more importantly, the overall game. It gave me a better appreciation of the big-picture elements of the game, even though at times my notes read like an obsessive serial killer - “Gallon, Gallon, GALLON!”
But enough of that; on to the Best and Worst of the Indiana Fig Things
Best: We’re the one without a Goatee
This is the second result from Google Image for “Doppelganger”
Going into this game, one of the major talking points was whether or not UM-ND was a “rivalry”, with Brian Kelly originally seeing it as a regional tilt and then, once he consulted with Grimace, Tinky Winky, and Count Von Count in the only way I presume they know how, he “clarified” that it was a great and historic one. Various people, mostly on the internet where one is duty-bound to correct all falsehoods, chimed in and waged digital battle until everyone exhaustively looked around and realized anyone not associated with either team viewed this as nothing more than the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers arguing over whose pile of money was best for Scrooge McDuck’ing.
It’s this blue-bloodedness that has always separated ND from the rest of UM’s traditional rivals. MSU is the half-brother who always wants to be taken seriously but inevitably shows up to social events slightly drunk with an un-tucked shirt and some “crazy” story about last weekend that inevitably ends with him in handcuffs and urine-soaked pants. OSU has all of the trappings of a worthy adversary, with a veneer of tradition, success, and bright future that is undeniable. Yet, once you dig a bit deeper you realize he holds his 1st-grade “Super Bee” spelling award far too close to this heart and his treasured idols are jerks, crooks, and hypocrites. They might have success and a hatred will always burn true with them, but the nouveau rich odor is hard to shake. PSU, Nebraska, and Wisconsin keep trying to catch your eye and are always ready to throw down, but it feels forced and unstable as they undergo major changes or fail to live up to their own expectations.
Notre Dame, though, has always felt like a perfect foil for UM, and that’s what renders outside perceptions irrelevant. #1 and #3 in all-time wins, #1 and #2 in Win Percentage, and #1 and #1a in ISOS Percentage (Inflated Sense of Self). Both fanbases see themselves as football royalty but with a healthy perception of their team’s current state, which is absolutely true until any additional evidence is provided that contradicts that ideal. We both scoff at meltdowns from fans of other teams yet conveniently ignore our own, constantly question the integrity of other coaches and teams even though both our programs have had issues in the past, and (like all fans) perpetuate the narrative in which our team is always the noble protagonist valiantly overcoming the dark underbelly of the sport. And yes, both UM and ND have been at the forefront at key moments in the sport’s evolution. Yet in the end, we’re just like everyone else except we won a bunch of games back when guys wore leather helmets and the forward pass was an innovation that kept players from killing each other.
So in a way, Notre Dame and Michigan are destined to always be rivals even when they don’t meet on the field; we both strive to obtain the superiority and nonpareil that only one can possess. But at the same time, the institutions are so similar both on and off the field that to truly “hate” the other is nothing more than an exercise of self-flagellation. And yes, this whole section is one shining example; gotta love the hypocrisy.
Best: The Madden Offense lives!
At this point I imagine the Ven diagram of “People who read MGoBlog diaries” and “People who have played computer football” resembles a perfect solar eclipse, so if you only think of John Madden as a character played by Frank Caliendo, I guess just move on to the next section.
For everyone else, though, UM’s offensive playcalling reminded me of those great 16-bit and early PlayStation/XBox/N64 Madden games where they hadn’t quite figured out how to properly balance player attributes when it came to speedy QBs and so you could call a shotgun pass on basically every down with impunity (I know most people consider Michael Vick circa 2001-2004 as the apex mobile QB in video games, but picking the Eagles with Randall Cunningham or the 49ers with Steve Young led to untold fights when I was in junior high). With one of those guys in the backfield, every pass carried the real possibility of a QB run with about a 1% chance that the defense could stop you before 5-6 yards. And on the off chance that you found yourself on 3rd/4th-and-long, just call for a Hail Mary/4 Verts and you could either throw the ball into the tiniest of windows because your QB had a Howitzer or, to be extra dickish, run for the first while juking every LB about 15 times. A mobile QB was about as close to god mode as one could get on the football field.
Well, with Devin Gardner at QB and Borges overjoyed with a QB who isn’t afraid to scramble sensibly (sorry Denard), UM is trotting out the type of offense that seems largely immune to defensive adjustments. Whereas in years past a collapsing pocket was almost immediately followed by a tuck-and-run, Gardner seems more than happy to move around while his WRs work to get open. And if that doesn’t happen quickly enough, or if there are yards available on the ground, Gardner just gallops 2-3 yards a stride and can pick it up efficiently. A couple of times Gardner basically rolled out, outran with ease an ND player barreling down on him from the edge, and calmly surveyed the field looking for an open Gallon, Dileo, Funchess, basically anyone. At least once he just kept running; other times he’d throw for the first. You didn’t often see that type of play last year, or at least run so easily and successfully, and it seems like it will be a staple in UM’s offense going forward until such time as any defense (i.e. MSU and that’s about it) shows the ability to slow it down.
Best: It’s Super Effective
To start the season, UM has had 22 meaningful drives (i.e. not at the end of the half and/or running out the clock). Of those, they’ve scored TDs on 12 of those drives and another 3 have ended with FGs. Four ended with INTs and they punted 3 other times. 15/22 drives have ended with points (and if you want to be snarky, a 16th ended with points for the opposition), and I think most fans would concur that the offense remains a work in progress. The redzone offense was even better, going 4-4 TDs against ND and, outside of an iffy pass interference on the last scoring drive, with relative ease. It’s getting to the point that once UM gets into the endzone, teams might as well let them score and at least conserve the clock.
Gallon was the shiniest of shiny stars along with Gardner, reeling in 3 TDs and 184 yards while consistently abusing anyone Notre Dame put on him. I know he was a little banged up at the end, but it didn’t look too serious and I can only imagine the holy hell these two will drop on teams like UConn and Iowa going forward.
This is the most effective offense I’ve ever seen at UM during the life of my fandom, and it should only improve as the offensive line gels more and Gardner starts to look for receivers other than Gallon and Dileo more consistently. Unfortunately…
Worst: QB Vision Cone still in experimental mode
I’m sure some of this was dictated by defensive alignments inside as well as comfort on the part of Gardner, but Butt and Funchess, those wacky police partners trying to catch criminals on the mean streets of Ann Arbor if they don’t tackle each other first, coming this fall to Fxx, er, accounted for only 36 yards on 5 catches, which follows up on a 3 for 55 game against CMU that was goosed considerably by Funchess’s 36-yard scamper. They are young and should improve as the season comes along (especially Butt, who appeared to drop and/or run out of position for a couple of balls), but Gardner’s passing cone seems a bit skewed toward Dileo and Gallon and that could very well catch up to him as teams adjust or, knock on wood, one of them gets hurt. For as much as I love the idea of this team’s leading receivers both being eligible for the Pomeroy Award, that would feel like a massive waste of talent at other positions on the field and, frankly, counter-productive to this team’s maturation this year and beyond.
As ST3 noted in the always-excellent Inside the Boxscore, the running game was surprisingly competent, posting 166 yards and 11 first downs against an extremely active and talented (if young at LB) Notre Dame front 7. While Gardner’s legs remained a key player in the ground game, Fitz’s consistent inside running and ability to eke out positive yards at the edges is a major reason why this offense remains so dangerous despite less-than-spectacular numbers on the stat sheet.
I know some people like to joke about “Manball” as 3 yards and a cloud of dust, but to me it has always meant establishing the threat of a running game at least in name, if not in production, so as to open the playbook and keep the opposition off-balance. It’s why people smarter than me become giddy when Kalis and Glasgow successfully pull on a 5-yard run on 1st down, or Fitz is able to run around Lewan’s block on Shempo for the first. It’s about drawing a line here, and saying only your guys shall go further.
What makes this type of manball different than Iowa’s, for example, is that the playcalling followed suit, with Gardner throwing more in shorter yardage situations and even on first down when ND’s LBs started to cheat up. If the mantra of the defensive line is the Right to Rush 4, then Fitz deserves to wear an “Earning Those 4” shirt every day. He’s seemingly come all the way back from that horrible day against Iowa, and he’s a major catalyst for this team’s hot start.
Best: Tackling, and the Lack Thereof
If you didn’t have some weird flashbacks of GERG’s defenses during Gallon’s triple-bounce TD rumble in the first quarter, you are either 4 years old or have repressed those memories until such time as you need to punch aliens. After years of seeing missed arm tackles turning into long TDs, it was refreshing to watch UM put on a veritable tackling clinic against Notre Dame. Even on completed passes, Countess or Taylor was a half-step away and tackling almost immediately, and in the 4th quarter I remember at least one WR screen being blown up by a hard-charging Taylor (?) running through the block to hit the receiver immediately. The LBs and safeties kept everything in front of them and limited yards after contact. Rees finished with 314 yards and 2 TDs, but it took 51 attempts and he only averaged 6.1 ypa along with 2 INTs. He dinked-and-dunked his way down the fields at time (his long completion was only 23 yards), but even his completions were into small windows that his receivers had to earn. Jones, Niklas, and Daniels are dangerous skill-position players, and it felt like the secondary played them to a stand-still.
The defense remains a work-in-progress, and it still feels like a year or two away from truly disruptive, but against a ND offense with some real blue-chip players offensively they more than held their own. I think every UM fan will count that as a win.
Worst: Missing the Firestarter
This probably doesn’t need repeating, but Jake MF Ryan’s presence is sorely missed on this team when it comes to putting pressure on opposing QBs. It’s been two games, and while the CMU numbers weren’t as bad as I originally thought, I remain skeptical that the front four will be able to consistently generate a pass rush against a competent line. Mattison’s defense only sacked Rees once, hit him another time, and only infrequently made him uncomfortable throwing the ball; when they did, it either ended with a poor throw or one of his two INTs. With 51 attempts, including a large number when ND was clearly going to pass, you’d expect much more presence by a defense that seems best suited for pining its ears back and delay-blitzing the crap out of you.
With Ryan back I presume some of those blitzes will hit home, and that should open up rushing lanes for the likes of Clark. Luckily there doesn’t appear to be another team coming up before Ryan’s return that should pose much of a threat passing the ball (MAC! Big East!, 1/4 Big Ten!), but this remains the one noticeable deficiency in an otherwise-stout defensive unit.
Best: Michigan Speed!!!
Just something I loved – on a stretch play early in the first quarter, ND’s RB (I think it was Carlisle) kept trying to string out the play toward the sideline; each time he took a step toward the line, though, another UM player was there to drive him back. The athleticism on the defensive side of the ball, while objectively not much different than during the 90’s/00’s heyday, still feels warp-speed compared to those RR defenses that couldn’t hold the edge to save their lives. Part is probably coaching and positioning, but this defense just flashes to the ball the way good defenses are supposed to, and it is a sight to watch.
Best: Give Him All the Women
Brendan Gibbons was 2/2 this game, breaking the consecutive FG record previously held by Remy Hamilton. if Mattison has the Heininger Certainty Principle, then somebody needs to figure out what Hoke did to Brendan and call it the Gibbons Kicking Catalyst. I know kicking is notoriously wonky and unpredictable, but from 1/5 to the record book is amazing. And Matt Wile deserves continued kudos for booming kickoffs into the end zones as needed.
Worst: Obligatory Wrestling Reference
I’m really not trying to make this a common theme, but it just feels right in this context. As always, feel free to skip this section if you don’t care about professional wrestling.
One of the common tropes in professional wrestling history is to exaggerated ethnicity and treat it as “character” for a grappler. That’s why for years you had evil Kozlovs, the “Polish Hammer” Ivan Putski, dozens of Samoans, the Mexicools (with real riding lawnmower!), Junkyard Dogs, and every other horrible stereotype you can think of perpetrated . While there is undoubtedly a racist component to it, a major reason promoters highlight a wrestler’s ethnicity is because it eliminates the need for nuance and “plays” to everyone regardless of their viewpoint; you boo or cheer because you are told to associate some characteristic with good or bad guys regardless of who they actually are; the man is basically just laundry.
For obvious reasons, this characterization has become less common in recent years, as even the most generic of wrestlers are at least given a chance to be more than their last name or nation of origin. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they must turn their back completely on their heritage; in fact, many of them incorporate parts into their persona. The most prominent example I can think of in recent years is Sheamus, an Irish-born grappler with a red shock of hair, alabaster skin, and pun-approved move names like the Brogue Kick, the High Cross, and the Irish Curse backbreaker. Outside of the ring he has a delightful Irish accent, seems to have a reasonable sense of humor, and can carry himself on the talk show circuit like a champ. In so many ways, he should be loved.
But here’s the thing; if you aren’t a little kid, you probably think Sheamus is kind of a dick. His attempts at humor you mind grating, especially when they inevitably take on sophomoric qualities such as stealing a Mexican aristocrat’s car, eating Mexican food in it, and then pooping in it. He’s rather predictable in the ring, and while the higher-ups tried pushing him as a main-eventer, that fizzled out when people realized he just wasn’t that compelling a figure. He’s kind of a relic of a bygone era, and decades ago probably would have been one of the biggest draws in the Northeast and Midwest.
Notre Dame is the Sheamus of college football, and it’s not just because of the obvious Irish connection. Both seem like they should be a bigger deal than they are, and despite WWE/OWMiM’s (Old White Men in Media’s) attempts to convince us otherwise, that connection to the past isn’t strong enough to ignore the mediocrity of the present. And, I guess, both retain the possibility for rebirth with the proper tweaking; Notre Dame under Kelly look to be returning to at least national competitiveness, and Sheamus is probably a new entrance song and catch phrase from main-eventing a PPV. But right now, the luck of the Irish isn’t smiling on her favored sons.
Best: The Signs!
You guys posted some great ones and it was fun to see them IRL. My two favorite remain “Play like your girlfriend’s are real today” and “Where was the ‘Luck of the Irish’ during the potato famine?” I can only imagine what we’ll see next week with Alabama and A&M.
This will be a bit of an abbreviated post because, well, 59-9 tells a pretty compelling story. Sure, I will try to tease out some larger trends from the game, but the biggest takeaway is that UM destroyed a MAC team in the way you expect the winningest program in college football history to do so, and nobody really seemed that surprised. Given the relative struggles the past half-dozen years, that’s the biggest Best I can point out.
Best: The least sexy 59 points you’ll ever see
As Brian noted in his “Five Questions, Five Answers” preview, the Al Borges offense we’re going to see is not the spread that was trotted out under RR and limped along until the end of the Denard era. While I take issue with the “wrong side of history” supposition of this decision, I agree with Brian that Borges’s offense will remain dynamic and creative enough that the ghost of Mike Debord will stay in his comically 90’s room for the foreseeable future.
That’s like, totally your opinion
But 52 points were scored by this offense without much in the way of trickeration or going for 2 points on the first two TDs, you twerp. It was an efficient, dominant performance with wrinkles here and there but also a consistent scheme that was frankly missing during the Transition. As Ace noted there are questions about the line, but Kalis MANBALLED a couple of guys and held up well; I expect Miller to struggle at times but should improve with more reps to at least competent. This offense will undoubtedly struggle at times when teams are able to collapse the inside of the line, and the WRs need to create more separation than they did today, but overall it felt like the type of performance one expected from this unit. It should be the best in the conference unless OSU figures out how to block people, and even then I think the plethora of backs and TEs will continue to keep Devin reasonably clean and away from too many hits running the ball.
Best: Who needs redshirts?
The usual suspects played – Morris, Smith, and Green on offense; Charlton and Thomas on defense. Not unexpected burning men like Gedeon, Butt, and Stribling also suited up, and while I’m a little annoyed if Gedeon only plays on special teams this year, you have to think the coaches like what he brings on defense to push him into a more prominent role. Lewis is a bit of a head scratcher, but Norfleet had some troubles early on with returns and Lewis is a shifty guy in space. But overall, I’m not a fan of redshirting except when the guy in question really wouldn’t help you (i.e. most linemen, small-ish WRs, anybody in the secondary unless they are unbelievable), and basically everyone who played acquitted himself well enough to warrant more playing time in some capacity.
So yeah, the defense looked REALLY fast out there. Thomas on the punt block practically yanked the ball out of the punter’s hands, and throughout the game CMU players were hit as soon as they touched the ball. Early on it seemed like Countess was playing off the WRs too much, but then every time the ball was sent their way he stuck the receiver almost immediately. Other than one or two plays toward the end, the secondary kept everyone in front of them and rarely did you see much separation. Under Hoke, it sometimes felt like Mattison and co. had to gameplan teams into spots to compensate for a lack of athleticism at certain positions; at least after today it looks like those limitations are disappearing quickly. It isn’t quite LSU/Alabama speedsters out there quite yet, but this is another check in the “good recruiting” checklist for this staff.
Worst: We can’t have nice things
Listen, I’m as neurotic and cynical as the next guy when it comes to sports, but at some point it just gets old. I will admit to being a bit down about the early play calling and will remain a Borges questioner until such time as I learn how college offenses work, but at some point the liveblog became one big bit*hing session+ once it was clear UM was going to run away with the game. All of a sudden you have people questioning Derrick Green’s ability to run through contact, Frank Clark’s inability to get to the QB (I will admit to being in this group initially), and every non-TD run or non-intercepted completion as proof that some component of the team wasn’t “working” or was a point of concern. The hive mind of the liveblogs can adopt misguided stances and I get that it shouldn’t be taken seriously, but the team just scored 59 points against a bowl team, held them to a couple of field goal attempts with 3(!) of 14 drives longer than 30 yards, and averaged 5.1 yards per carry and 10.5 yards per attempt. They played pretty well folks; let’s enjoy the win for at least a day before we all try to Gladwell our way through trends from one game.
+ I never understand *’ing out the vowel in a cuss word. I think we all know that “f*ck” doesn’t refer to one-time Tiger’s first basemen Robert Fick, yet everyone apparently thinks removing the ‘i’ in sh*t is going to throw everyone off the scent. Either blot out the whole word or leave it alone. /HOTSPORTSTAKE
Had 106 yards on 4 returns, and was a couple of broken tackles away from housing at least 1 of those returns. He also recorded 38 yards on his one run, and overall looked like a dynamic component of the offense. He’ll never be an every-down back and I doubt he’ll reach the heights of Breaston (who seemingly was both faster a bit more elusive in small spaces), but he gives this team a legitimate return man for the first time since, I don’t know, McGuffie, and the type of guy who can take those once-a-game Ronald Bellomy WR runs and make them work because the other team can’t immediately assume that’s why he’s on the field.
Worst: Out of Nowhere!
Fair warning: this section is going to be one big wrestling analogy. Since I was around 6 years old, I’ve been a huge fan of professional wrestling. I watch it on television, Hulu, and Youtube every chance I can. I once rented every Wrestlemania (9 of them at the time) and watched them straight, without blinking, and probably lost a gallon of water with the drool that fell from my mouth. I loved Jake Roberts and Damien so much I cried when Earthquake “squished” him during their feud. I was a little Hulkster, then a member of the Warrior nation, followed by a heartbroken Rocker fan (seeing Shawn kick Marty Jannetty and throw him through the barbershop window taught me to never trust anyone in a leather jacket). I was a fan of the Dangerous Alliance and marked out so hard when Stunning Steve became Stone Cold and ushered in the Attitude Era along with DX, the Rock and Sock Connection, Kurt Angle, and washed-up MMA guys like Tank Abbott and Ken Shamrock. Hogan creating the NWO with Kevin Nash and Scott Hall set the world on fire for a bit, and Goldberg speared anyone with a pulse into next Tuesday. TLC wasn’t a way to treat a lady or a TV channel with weird shows about future diabetes sufferers; it was a brutal contest with enough splintered tables and broken limbs to remind you how fragile the human body is. Innovators like Chris Jericho and Rey Mysterio showed you little guys could rise to the top, and Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit shed the “Vanilla Midgets” label to become champions even though their careers ended suddenly (and in Benoit’s case, horribly). Even with the relatively fallow period that followed Brock Lesnar’s departure to NFL training camps and, ultimately, the UFC, I still enjoyed watching Batista, JBL, Orton, John Cena, and the rest soldier on. And with the ascension of “Indy” guys likes CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, plus the healthy growth of the development system and the indy feds like ROH, PWG, CZW, and the like, it is a good time to be a fan.
Over this time, I’ve seen the medium evolve and grow, and mostly for the better. Guys train harder and take better care of their bodies, match quality is higher, and storytelling has evolved to the point where major sports blogs have writers dedicated to covering it. It isn’t necessarily still real to me, but I definitely see it maintaining a place in my sports life going forward.
One change I have noticed over the years, though, is the proliferation of “spontaneous” in-ring moments and moves that you just didn’t see back in the 80’s and early 90’s. It used to be when a guy was going to hit his “finisher”, he had some setup – Hogan gave you the big boot before running the ropes and dropping the leg; Ric Flair gave you the knee breaker and then actually had to lock in the figure-four; and even “quick hitters” like the Ultimate Warrior and Shawn Michaels still had some setup before they finished you off with their splash or superkick. But around the time Austin hit the scene, guys started in with the reversals and the quick finishers; Stunners to everyone, Diamond Cutters off chokeslams, Tombstones off cross bodies and Sweet Chin Musics off jumping attacks. Now every move was “out of nowhere”, culminating in Randy Orton RKO’ing literally everybody off ever-more convoluted triple-lindys. As Brandon Stroud of With Leather always laments, guys just need to stop jumping around Orton and they’ll win all the time.
So what’s my point? Well, one of the things that has changed about following college sports is that because of the multitude of mediums covering the games, you really aren’t “surprised” by anything before the teams step on the field. Sure, Gordon being suspended for the first game was relatively unknown, but even then there was a board post on the topic two hours before the game. I knew the vast majority of the depth chart weeks before it was released, heard the insider buzz about certain players stepping up while others floundered, and even knew the basic structure of the offense and defense, including quite a few wrinkles, despite the best attempts by the Fort to keep them under wraps. On one hand it makes fandom more engrossing and “fun” because my knowledge is more thorough and nuanced, but the “Christmas morning” feel of watching the team line up that first game is lost a bit when you’ve already read about the N64 and Easy-Bake oven in the nondescript box three weeks ago. And with all that information, expectations can explode to unreasonable levels; witness the post above with people complaining about the young running backs.
The inexorable march of progress is such that we’ll only get more insider information and in-depth analyses of players and recruits, and on the whole that is a positive for both fans and the game. To be a well-rounded fan, you need to read and keep up on your teams to an almost-unhealthy degree; otherwise you are basically Skip Bayless or Lou Holtz without the clothing budget. About the only time you can ever be surprised anymore is when you….
Best: Play the Game
For despite all of the predictions and charts, the acronyms and the tomes written about the game, nobody knows will happen during the game until the teams actually line up. Fitz looked great out there, making cuts and accelerating through holes opened up be a much-improved offensive line. Devin looked shaky earlier but played well in the end, accounting for over 200 yards in about 2.5 quarters of work. Morris, Green, and Smith all had their turns out there and showed promise. the depth on defense, previously a figment of the fevered imagination of our benevolent overlord, showed up in spades. Countess looked like the corner everyone expected last year before he was hurt, while Thomas, Wilson, Stribling, Morgan, Ross, and Gordon all stepped into more prominent roles and played well (I recognize Wilson blew at least one assignment). Even guys like Clark, whom I’m more down on than others, played reasonably well. I know it’s one game, but it was nice to be surprised by guys actually playing football in a game that mattered.
Worst: Big Ten!
Oh where to start. MSU struggled to move the ball against the other, other directional school last night, and no amount of BTN spit-shining will change that. As noted earlier, OSU went for 2 twice because (a) Meyer wanted to make a point, and (b) that point is that he is a *ick. And even with all of that early success, a 4-8 Buffalo team was touch-and-go with the #2 team in the country, at home, for most of the game. Illinois looked competent against Southern Illinois but still only won by 8, Cincy pounded Purdue by 35 as perennial Most Awesome Name candidate Munchie Legaux stood tall in the pocket. PSU held on against Syracuse but looked like it will be years until the effects of those sanctions allow them to regain their stronger position in the conference, and Wiscy ran over UMass like they always do against overmatched squads who are lactose intolerant. At least they can run the ball with James White. Oh yeah, and Iowa lost to NIU because of course they would. At time of this post teams like NW and Nebraska are still playing, but I doubt we’ll learn much about either team win or lose (though if they lose to Wyoming and/or Cal, I’m going to book my tickets for Indy tomorrow).
But overall, it was not a banner weekend for the conference. The Big 10 isn’t great at football outside of the top couple of teams; that’s been an annoying reality for a couple of years now. The conference isn’t dying or falling behind anyone not named the SEC, but the Big 2, Little 10 mantra is gaining traction every day, and I’m not seeing much evidence down the pipeline that it will change any time soon.
Best: UTL II
Hey, it might be fun…