Mason NEEDS this, Pistons, after all you've put him through
Best: The Gibbons
In baseball, scoring the game-winning run(s) in your final at-bat is regarded as a “walk-off.” The connotation is that the player smoothly performed his duty so well (usually via a homerun) that he can “walk” the bases and enjoy the adulation of a job well done. Well, in adding to his legacy of game-tieing/winning kicks, Brendan Gibbons introduced a new word to the vernacular for game-winning plays: the “Gibbons”. With chaos around him and the weight of the season on his shoulders, he gave this team life that ultimately led them to a stirring victory and, perhaps, changed the final chapters of this wayward football season. After the Sugar Bowl we all thought of Gibbons as a brunette-loving Keith Stone, but after yesterday’s game he has entered into the UM lexicon like “New Math”/“Braylonfest”, “Dilithium”, “Mercury”, the “Threat”, and all of the other cherished moments in UM lore.
Much has been made recently about Gibbons's "struggles" kicking the ball, though if you look at his season stats it was basically a couple of blocked/missed kicks against PSU that were the nadir of his season thus far. Outside of that wacky game, he’s been pretty solid all year; if anything, he’s suffered a bit of regression from his record-setting 16-straight FGs made between last season and this one. His wobbly make last week happens to virtually every kicker from time to time, and any inkling of a “meltdown” was quelled when he drilled his first two FGs into the swirling Evanston wind.
But then the least inspiring 2-minute drive started, and you didn’t know if he’d even have a chance to attempt a makeable kick to tie the game, especially given the playcalling and overall lack of urgency seemingly displayed by the team as it tried to tie the game (I’ll get into that with greater detail below). Throw in a 13-yard sack and a final completion to Gallon with about 13 seconds left and the clock running, and all seemed lost. But then something magical happened, and a team that was so discombobulated that it had to convert two 4th-and-4s on the last drive was able to switch out personnel in mere seconds, spot a wet ball, and send the game into overtime with a no-doubt-about-it (oh gawd, I’m starting to talk like Berman) 44 yarder. Like most readers of this blog, I’ve not been a fan of the special team’s reliance on an archaic punt formation, blocking on FGs, or returns, but this squad and its coach deserve immense credit for executing when it was needed most. I’d also like to point out the great slide by Dileo to get into his holder position, which helped save a second or two that was obviously needed to get the play off.
Best: Northwestern: The ‘Eat Your Vegetables, There are Starving Kids in X’ of College Football
It’s a bit cliche, but I remember my mom whipping out the tired “eat your food, there are kids with far less around the world” argument when I wouldn’t finish my broccoli. Of course, little did she know that broccoli is the most deadly of the vegetables. Regardless, the point was to remind me that there were people out there with it worse off, and not to take for granted the bountiful opportunities before me.
Well, for UM fans those starving children are Northwestern. After a 4-0 start, NW has lost 6 straight, including one game on a last-second Hail Mary from Cereal Empire Progeny Ron Kellogg III and another after being Gibbons’ed with about a second left. Unless they somehow pull off an epic upset against MSU, they will finish with a losing record before they match up against Illinois, and a season that began with talk of a Rose Bowl bid will, at best, end with them playing in some god-forsaken shanty-town (or Detroit) in a late-December bowl game named after a Dave Brandon’s Mortal Enemy or the state in which it is held. So the next time you complain about being “only” 7-3, remember that there are a bunch of future hedge fund associates and medical school colleagues being bummed out for a couple more weeks.
Worst: This is Still the Offense
Lost in the OT victory is the fact this team had 6 points until about 2 seconds left in regulation, and failed to convert on a 3rd down play until OT (going 0-13 in the process). 17 of 24 completions, and 176 of 226 total passing yards, went to Gallon and Funchess, which in one sense feels like a revelation but on the other hand highlights just how dependent this team is on those two winning individual matchups. When the opposition allows it, this is a pretty good receiving core; when the defense can get to Devin and/or bracket the two in coverage there doesn’t appear to be a third option unless Butt is starting to take control of the position (5 catches for 50 yards and a TD the past two weeks). And though I get into it with greater detail below, the running game had a slightly below-average performance, which given the past two weeks makes them f’ing Army out there.
My issue with the offensive gameplan remains the reliance on elements that simply don’t work with nearly enough consistency to warrant the reliance we’ve seen thus far. The announcers noted on that last drive of regulation how the team was able to complete a couple of short passes, and throughout the game it did feel like there was a concerted effort to pick away with short and intermediate routes at times. But there were still far too many two-route formations that screamed pass (or Devin scrambles), and I found myself guessing the offensive call about 75% even with the added wrinkles. And at the most minor hint of establishing a running game, the playcall inevitably came in for a long play-action pass that rarely hit because, again, NW hadn’t been burned enough for them to really start over-playing against the run. Ultimately the game devolved into the Devin Gardner show, which worked because it put the ball in the hands of the most dangerous player on the offense and produced mismatches because the defense had to react to real uncertainty.
I know people will complain that I am focusing too heavily on the negatives and am showing my anti-Borges agenda, and I’ll cop to thinking the guy shouldn’t be the OC anymore. But the fact remains that over the past 12 quarters of regulation, the team has scored exactly 1 TD, and mounted 7 drives of 50 yards or more out of a total of 34 real drives. Again, ignoring the major outlier that was Indiana, this team has averaged about 25 points a game during the conference season, and that includes a pair of 3OT games. It’s a unit that relies on its defense to keep the game close (and at times carve out decent chunks of yardage), and for the money being spent on this staff I’d have expected a more coherent performance even given the weather conditions.
Best: Let Them Play!
It doesn’t seem like too many people took issue with Hoke’s decision to go for the lead with about 5 minutes left in the 4th quarter, and throw my hat into the camp that thought it was the right call. Sure, going for the tie is fine, but this offense hadn’t been able to move the ball much at all throughout the game, and being that close to a game-winning TD made it a no-brainer. At worst you leave NW with poor field position and facing a defense that had largely stymied them all day, and a TD forces NW to drive all the way down the field for the win. With heavy winds and a wet field, that would have been a tall order. Plus, this team had already seemingly played for a tie since the 1st quarter, so it was nice to see Hoke attack convention despite the less-than-optimal results.
To say that Devin Gardner had a “variable” game against Northwestern would be to insult the notions of weak typing and celestial bodies. By raw numbers, Gardner had a slightly below-average game (24/43/226/1TD/0INT) mitigated somewhat by some nasty weather and a remarkably stout Wildcat pass defense. Interspersed amongst those 19 incompletions, though, were a number of throws that this ball-hawking NW defense could have easily caught and returned for TDs, and of which would likely have dramatically altered the outcome of this game. On the first drive along, Gardner threw at least two balls that bounced off defenders’ hands with nothing by grass between them and the endzone, to even the final drive of regulation where a game-ending INT simply slipped away from a DB’s grasp.
And most of these near-turnovers were simply due to bad throws or misreading coverage, from locking onto Funchess on the sideline despite a LB clearly lurking not two steps away to throwing at Innerspace-sized windows. Perhaps it was cosmic penance for some of the wacky interceptions that occurred earlier in the year or Gardner’s private incantations to drive out bad spirits, but Northwestern left dozens of points on that field, any of which would have eliminated the insanity that led to UM’s win. On one hand it was further evidence that Gardner has a great deal maturation ahead of him if the mental aspects of his game are to catch up to his physical skillset, taking him from an inconsistent talent to a transcendent one. On the other, though, it was the first time in weeks that it felt like Gardner was even thinking of throwing the ball aggressively, and credit for this revelation should go to both him and Borges. It wasn’t smooth sailing by any stretch, but at this point in the year I’d rather see them taking chances than going deeper into the well-fortified shell they’ve seemingly occupied since PSU (save for the And-1 mixtape that was IU).
Worst: Out with the Old Poor Damn Toussaint, In with the They Can’t Be Worse
I am an avowed Fitz fan, and have been for most of the year. I thought his struggles running the ball mostly had to do with the offensive line, and I still wouldn’t be surprised to see him catch on in the NFL as a free agent for at least a cup of coffee. He still seems to possess the shiftiness and speed that made him so promising a couple of years ago, even though I’m sure his injuries have taken a toll. And as others have noted, Fred Jackson is a lot of things but “coach able to develop RBs beyond their natural talents” maybe isn’t one of them. But as the past couple of weeks have shown, his struggles as a blocker on passing downs are not going away, and considering he’s a senior who has recorded 26 yards total the past 2 weeks and maybe, possibly a little injured, it was time for a change to Green and Smith.
With the two freshmen in the lineup, the team “rolled” for 4.4 yards per carry from the RB position, and generally looked semi-competent rushing the ball even though even the 4.4 was goosed by two long runs of 23 and 16 yards. Drop those two long runs and the average was closer to 3.2 ypc, but for the first time in a couple of weeks there felt like the threat of running the ball was there for the Wolverines.
Now, caveats aplenty do apply. NW still recorded 10 TFL including 5 sacks, and a couple of those came from said freshmen whiffing on blocks just as badly as Fitz. Green and Smith were intermittently able to run after first contact, but against a mediocre rushing unit in the rain I’d be careful about extrapolating too much. Next week against Iowa will be a truer test, and I’d be surprised if they saw similar success against a decent Hawkeye front 7. It seems a bit unfair to pull Fitz after having him suffer running against the best rushing defense in the country and a hyper-aggressive Cornhusker unit that was calling the offensive plays at the line, but this being results-based grading I suspect his role will be further minimized until such time as Green and/or Smith struggle to run the ball effectively. That may be after the 1st quarter next week, but until then this may be the ignominious end to the star-crossed UM career of PDT.
Best: 9 Points the Hard Way
Some will issue with the fact that I questioned the offensive playcalling despite the weather conditions while ignoring the fact that NW only scored 9 points in regulation. And yes, this particular NW outfit doesn’t possess the dynamic offensive talent we’ve come to expect from the Wildcats, even with Colter and Siemian on the field. Still, the defense faced 11 drives and forced punts on 8 of them, which was doubly impressive given the fact that NW was coming off a bye week and (outside of Venric Marc) had its full complement of offensive weapons. The defense still held the Wildcats to 308 yards on 73 plays in regulation, including a Nordic Minnesota-esque 16-play FG drive on NW’s first drive that (along with UM’s own 12-play FG march) basically ate up the 1st quarter. And perhaps most inspiringly, the unit held its own late in the game, forcing punts on all three 4th-quarter possessions while only giving up about 55 yards.
That said, the unit remains inconsistent. It still can’t produce much in the way of an organic pass rush, though it was able to record two sacks, including Jibreel Black’s final drive-crushing one in OT. It largely kept NW from exposing the edge or gaining many yards after initial contact, and NW averaged under 3 ypc despite running the ball 49 times. And perhaps most excitingly, most completions tended to end with near-immediate tackles, limiting the YAC that is the bread-and-butter of the best spread offenses.
I find it hard to write much more about the defense, simply because it has been remarkably consistent save for about half of the IU game. It bends more than I’d like, but it has always kept UM in the game and rarely blows assignments; in short, it looks well-coached despite having sub-optimal talent. Most importantly, I see how incremental improvements can turn it into a championship-level defense, and the coaches and players seem to have bought into the system that will get them there. Maybe they’ll get blown out of the water by OSU or the bowl opponent, but right now this feels like the next evolutionary step in a dominant defense.
Best: Frank the Tank
I’ll admit to not being a firm believer in the Frank Clark Hype Machine when it left the station at the beginning of the year, but I wanted to point out how nicely he’s come along. Early in the year he just looked like an athlete trying to figure out how to play football; now he seems to get how to play his position with a fair bit of consistency. He isn’t perfect by any means and I’m not sure he’ll ever be a dominant end, but now when a play breaks down it isn’t usually because of something dumb he did, and it does seem like teams are starting to have to gameplan a bit to stop him. I’m not really able to dedicate the time to analyze the tape to confirm how much of an improvement he’s made, but the UFRs have been showing a steady improvement by him as well as Black as the year has progressed.
The game featured a total of 4 penalties for 35 yards, which given the pedigrees of the teams (and the sometime-haughtiness of the fanbases) probably shouldn’t surprise anyone. And unlike in years past, Pat Fitzgerald didn’t jump around and celebrate a late hit, so it was downright civilized in Evanston.
Best/Worst: Freedom is the only way now!
An obvious best for Veterans Day and the overall recognition of the service provided by those in uniform. I’m not getting into the underlying political issues surrounding the development and use of the U.S. military during both wartime and peactime, but only applauding a day that recognizes many of the sacrifices made by those in the military. It always seems a bit weird when sports teams don one-off uniforms designed to recognize the military because they can feel a bit tone-def or commercial, but I tend to believe their hearts are in the right place.
That said, my gawd were those Northwestern uniforms weird looking. I’m usually not a guy who cares about sartorial choices, but from the faux-tattered flag helmets, the military-academy-approved names such as Freedom, Commitment, and Courage nameplates, to the obscene amount of gray during an overcast and dreary game which would end under the lights, it was a bit too jarring especially given the fact Veteran’s Day was nearly a week ago. Looking back, it felt a bit like the Washington Generals were trying to play football, which should have been a good sign for the Wolverines. And unlike UM and their CEO AD, this didn’t feel like an attempt by the NW brass to rake in money; it just felt like good intentions with meh implementation.
Worst: All These High Horses Sure Do Produce a Bunch of Sh*t
So I thought this was settled when it had to be stated AGAIN not to attack players via social media and question their “heart” and “dedication”, but as I delved through the open threads and twitter I saw a number of people say the “Player X (usually Gardner) should be benched” because he was too dumb, too lazy, etc. to play the position. Now, I’m an avowed opponent of Feelings-Ball, and nothing drives me crazier than (usually older) fans challenging the intelligence and dedication of college kids playing a game. So let me again state to all those out there: STOP QUESTIONNING THE INTELLIGENCE AND DEDICATION OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYERS. I’m happy you made it to the Regional finals with your HS team back in 1998 (Go Cougars!), but there is about a 0% chance that most of the Internet could even play a whole series of downs against this level of competition without dying, let alone perform as well as most of these kids have this season. That doesn’t mean you can’t take issue with the results (i.e. pointing out the offensive line has struggled is just making a factual observation; saying that it is because one of the linemen is lazy and stupid is being a dick).
In particular, Devin’s struggles are not because he doesn’t “get” the offense worse than Morris (or more importantly, the mythic Morris who isn’t a freshman playing behind a pretty poor offensive line), but because he is playing in a sub-optimal situation while still learning whatever offensive philosophy the coaches are trying to install along with the other 10 guys on offense. I don’t think there is a racial component involved in much of this taunting (I’d be foolish to believe there isn’t a segment because I saw the same with Denard), since John Navarre is one of the most “classic” QB’s you’ll ever see and people were merciless with him when he played at UM. And while the great “execution” versus “coaching” debate remains just as lively as ever here, you can make the argument about the play on the field without questioning the intrinsic characteristics of the players involved.
Best: False or Real, I’ll Take All the Hope You’ve Got!
Yes it was Northwestern and it was a crazy finish, but this team now has a chance to finish the season with some momentum if they can play up to Iowa and then, maybe, stay competitive with OSU. While I’d be happy with a split, the Buckeyes showed just enough weakness against Illinois to give me a sense that this game could be interesting, and at home in a rivalry you never know. And seeing as how the Buckeyes were passed over by Baylor and Oregon is nipping at their heels, UM could still at least play spoiler like they did during most of Cooper’s run. And along the way, UM still could finish with 10 wins, which would be a pretty amazing accomplishment given the way this season has unfolded.
This is going to be reference-heavy. I have a 4-day old at home and caught much of this game on DVR. I figure, if the coaching staff didn’t feel like rubbing two brain cells together before playing the Cornhuskers, no reason I should break a sweat.
Best: Groundhog Day!
So you know how last week I complained about an incoherent offensive strategy, a continued failure to accept that running the ball just wasn’t possible with this outfit, struggles along the offensive line and how it was destroying Devin Gardner from the inside, and a general apathy toward the offensive coaching staff in particular and Hoke’s coaching in general? Well, ask me again about the groundhog, because this week’s game featured the exact same complaints. Yippee for copy-paste!
Worst: Simulate Mode
As anyone who has played recent incarnations of Madden and/or NCAA football know, there is an option during games to “simulate” a set number of plays/possessions to speed up the game. Usually the simulation follows predictable patterns for the team based on a combination of their empirical stats and rankings as well as current game trends; if you are playing Navy a simulated drive for the Midshipmen is basically 8 straight runs followed by a long playaction pass, or if you are the Lions it’s usually a bunch of passes to Megatron followed by an interception. Basically, it works best if you know how your team typically performs in a vacuum and then consider the opponent; you won’t be surprised if you are Alabama versus random FCS East school, but Akron probably isn’t holding on against OSU if you need to take a breather. While I usually am loathe to use this option because my inner Old Ball Coach loves to run up the score, I’ll sometimes use it on defense just to get the ball back to score quicker.
At this point in the season, I’m ready for ABC/ESPN/ESPN2/ESPN9mygawdwhydoihavetowatchthisanymore to cut to a more interesting game when UM is on offense and then just update us with a little box score four plays later with the outcome. Basically, NFL Redzone but in reverse. At least with the defense, something interesting could happen, something that highlights thoughtful coaching and semi-efficient execution of a plan. With Al Borges’ cut-rate Old Country Buffet offense, all I get as a fan is a couple of minutes to question my sanity and marvel at a team with a handful of NFL draft picks on the offensive line, a record-setting WR, a physical mismatch at TE/WR, A former top recruit at QB who is immensely athletic, and the #1 RB recruit in the nation failing to gain more than 3 yards a pop against a team that gave up 602 yards to Wyoming and 216 yards to Pur-f’ing-Due. Clark Griswold ain’t got nothing on me after watching this game.
At least he got some jelly.
UM gained a total of 175 yards on 12 drives, 141 of those yards on 2 of them. Last week I was aghast that UM gained –7 total yards outside of 3 longish drives against the #1 defense in America; against the 41st total defense they gained 40 yards total on the 10 other drives, with no drive longer than 16 yards. 0-9 Southern Miss had 6 drives that were longer and scored the same number of points as UM. I thought about breaking out this gif after the MSU game, but it didn’t feel right; after this game, nothing could be more appropriate about this team on offense.
Bes…And Another Thing
It’s not like these are acceptable growing pains for a unit on the rise. While the team is young overall, the offensive skill players are reasonably experienced save for the inside of the offensive line; this is a unit that isn’t necessarily destined to improve next year when those tackles are cashing NFL paychecks, Fitz breaks out in a cold sweat every time he walks through a doorway because he expects to be hit as soon as he opens the door, and everyone save Chesson and Funchess are getting their first “real” experience catching balls from a QB whose ribs are still recovering from a trip to the Lazarus Pit.
Green has a season long of 14 yards if you ignore his one run against CMU, and in this game averaged 1.4 ypc on 8 carries, 7 of which came on one run. He also seems unable to block anyone despite being somewhere in the ballpark of 240 pounds, or 2 more pounds than Joe Kerridge and 5 pounds more than 6’5” Devin Funchess. Gardner didn’t throw an interception for the 2nd time in 3 games, but that’s at least partially because he’s eaten 16 sacks over that same span, after only taking 10 total in the first 6 games of the year. His peripheral numbers weren’t horrible (7.3 ypa, 67%), but he rarely seemed comfortable looking downfield because, again, he didn’t want to be murdered by an unblocked Cornperson.
Funchess had a solid game and recorded the only TD, but you kind of expected more from him given the issues Nebraska has had stopping receivers in the past, and nobody other than Funchess or Gallon caught more than 2 passes. And about that running game…
Worst: Heart of Darkness
"... it was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice."
Another week, another negative running day. After recording a comprehensible –48 yards against MSU, UM dramatically improved on this performance by recording an incomprehensible –21 yards against the one of the worst rushing defenses in the AQ. Yes, including sacks in these totals obviously skew rushing performances, but the team only recorded a total of 46 positive yards against 67 lost yards over 36 carries, so that top number is more a slight fib than a lie.
I’ve been numb to the running game since they could barely crack 3 yards a carry against Minnesota, but it continues to boggle my mind that UM still relies on it so heavily, especially as an impetus for their offense. This is a bit of a crude measurement because a couple of first-down plays were clusterfricks that could have been a pass or a run but turned into immediate sacks/fumbled snaps, but I count 13 runs versus 8 passes on first down. Excising fumbled snaps and sacks from the computations, the average first-down run netted 1.7 ypc while passes hit home at 8.2 ypc. And yet, on 1st and long 2nd downs the call more than not was a poorly-blocked run into the heart of a Nebraska defense that hasn’t worn black shirts since they were chasing Colt McCoy around pre-Jerry World.
No drive was more an indictment of this insanity was the one after Nebraska’s fumble on a punt midway through the 4th quarter. UM was deep in Nebraska territory, tied but clearly struggling to move the ball save for that first 2nd-half drive, and a TD probably wins you the game. On the first Nebraska fumble late in the 3rd, UM threw the ball on first down deep to Gallon. It didn’t work, but its the type of playcall you need to make when you flip field position quickly.
On this second drive, though, the playcalls were two Manball Green runs for a total of –1 yards and a Gardner scramble leading to a Gibbons FG. Despite taking the lead, it felt like a loss by the offense and, frankly, I sped through the rest of the game to save me the agony as Nebraska marched down the field for the winning score. Like Taylor’s interception last week that led to a –21 yard drive, the offense never found its footing in a critical situation, and like last week it was mostly due to a reliance on a play style that was antithetical to the team’s limited strengths.
Best: Abdullah the Neighborhood Deli Guy
Heading into the game, I think most people expected Ameer Abdullah to have a big gain, and yet despite racking up 105 yards it felt like UM really held him in check. UM held the nation’s sixth-leading rusher to his lowest ypc of the year (3.9) and, his long run of 18 yards was one of those ping-pong-style runs that great backs get every once and a while. But overall, I thought the defense slowed him down quite well, and held the Nebraska offense to its lowest total and ypp outputs of the year, with only UCLA producing a similar effort. Nebraska only had 3 drives that were more than 30 yards, and while all three ended in scores, the other 8 averaged about 3 plays. Even with the caveats about the QBs, it was another solid performance by a unit that puts up good performances despite little organic pass rush (only 1 sack on a blitz by Gordon as well as two QB hits) and no real stars.
So I’ve waited until now before addressing this issue because I don’t want to be perceived as overly emotional. And yes, a bit of this is probably sleep deprivation. But here’s my best attempt to describe my feelings about this coaching staff.
And for the record, the old lady in this analogy is Greg Mattison, who has done a commendable job all things considered (injuries, experience, etc.).
As Brian noted during the podcast this week, Brady Hoke isn’t the micromanager you see by the likes of Saban, Meyer, Dantonio, or Rodriguez; he’s a CEO-style coach who hires his coaches and then expects them to perform their duties (Mack Brown seems to subscribe to the same mantra, for example). That doesn’t mean he is hands-off, only that he treats his staff as professionals and won’t meddle needlessly. At its best, coaches and players feel like they have real agency in their play, free from the blind spots and needless oversight from an overworked leader who can’t let go of the reins. At its worst, though, you have a leader who can’t stop the snowballing or, worst, tries to shake up the situation in an insane manner, such as RR trotting out the 3-3-5 against Purdue even though nobody on the staff had an idea of how to run it successfully.
Though I was a vocal critic of Brady Hoke when he first arrived on campus, he has exceeded my expectations when it comes to recruiting and shows a good sense of game theory and situational playcalling that you rarely saw with guys like Carr and Ferentz. And being a former defensive line coach, it is clear that he is more comfortable with that side of the team, and his defenses have been above-average despite facing tough odds in terms of talent and experience.
But when it comes to the offense, his lieutenants are treating every day like it’s Christmas at Sterling Cooper Draper Price, simple as that. The offensive line is a mess beyond simply experience, and the offense has regressed not just this year but over the past three seasons. Al Borges continues to play roshambo with the running game, and the passing game has become so neutered by poor blocking and (thanks to an inept rushing offense) poor down-and-distance. As I’ve said before, I’m sure Al Borges is a competent OC with the right talent, but right now he’s shown an inability to adapt to his team’s limitations as well as how other teams exploit those holes. And it goes deeper than simply wanting to install his offense; it seems fundamentally impossible for him to look beyond his playbook and do what is necessary to win. It’s not so much that he keeps throwing rock because it worked before; I’m fine with a coach staying true to this roots in a general sense. But this offensive playcalling seems to be actively ignoring the possibility of paper or scissors because they are self-identified “gimmicks” or for pussies. There are simple, within-the-offense playcalls that would help get this offense back on track and keep people alive, from more shotgun-based running to short option routes on 1st and 2nd down that could exploit matchups and, hopefully, loosen up the boxes UM is running into. But so far this year the offensive plan seems to be crappy pro-style until you are down and then semi-crappy spread until you get the lead or Devin Gardner is dead.
So if Hoke really is the CEO of this team, his one duty is to hold the coaches accountable. If I screw up at my job and my code is massively buggy, I’m fired. Sure, I might be a break in the beginning if the codebase is screwed up to begin with or there is some design overhaul, but at some point I’m expected to make the damn thing work. Right now, Al Borges is failing to get the damn thing to work, and unless he’s just been playing possum these past 3 years, I don’t see that changing either this year or next. I’m done calling for guys’ heads, but I’m also done believing that Al Borges will ever be more than a bad hire by Brady Hoke.
When it was announced before the game that Courtney Avery and Josh Furman would be the starting safeties, people justifiably wondered what was happening. There were apparently rumors that Thomas Gordon was injured and that the coaches wanted to try someone other than Wilson, but settling on Avery and Furman was questionable for a number of reasons. With Avery, it’s the fact that he is undersized for the position and has struggled at times in coverage. But at least he’s played the position before during the year and the coaches have some confidence in him. But Furman was another issue altogether, as he’s been consistently passed by other players throughout his career at UM despite being touted as a great athlete due to his rawness. Throw in Dymonte Thomas sneaking onto the field a couple times at the nickel seemingly in place of Lewis, and the secondary was markedly different than the one we’ve seen the past 8 games.
Problems with Furman started on that first drive when Nebraska converted on a long third down because the safety seemingly didn’t get down quick enough to stop the completion over the cornerback. And then he gave Nebraska a first down on a pretty egregious PI because, again, he hasn’t earned consistent playing time since he stepped onto campus and has struggled with nuances of the game. He seemed to be replaced by Wilson as the game proceeded, but the change seemed forced and merely for its sake, not because of some advantage it provided to the defense.
As for the offense, Derrick Green was definitely highlighted more despite the middling results noted earlier, and there were calls after the game for Shane Morris to replace Gardner because, I don’t know, people on the Internet like to be contrarian and ignore all reality. But it was strange to see these types of changes this late in the season with limited rationale beyond “well, it can’t hurt.”
I’ve never been able to fully embrace Chris Spielman due to his sometime-blatant homerism, but you can’t deny his knowledge of the game or the nuances he brings to the booth when compared to, I don’t know, anyone you’d find on the BTN. Throughout the game, he said Gardner (and the offense in general) needed to make adjustments, call audibles, etc. as the Nebraska defense beared down. Well, what can you do on 3rd and 19 and you have maybe 3 possible people to throw the ball to? True, the players are struggling at times to run the plays called, but when the offense has as much variety as a Tecmo Bowl playsheet and defenses are clearly able to make adjustments as the offense is lining up, I’m not sure how much you can expect in terms of counter-offenses.
I respect Spielman’s knowledge, but he kept talking about “execution” as if it is a tangible asset divorced from playcalling. If we’ve learned anything this year it is that this offense lacks the nuances to succeed unless the defense breaks down, everything goes right, or one of the still position players makes a superior effort. And even when the offense executes reasonably well, you still have a largely sub-par unit, unless the entire MSU game and much of the PSU/Nebraska/Akron/UConn games were all masterful games marred by players suffering from massive brain trauma.
Best: Don’t Hold Onto The Damn Ball!
Brian always jokes about Wolverines needing to hold onto the ball on punt returns, so it was great to see Norfleet recover a fumbled fair catch deep in Nebraska territory. As noted above, it didn’t lead to the winning score, but after weeks of near-recoveries it was nice to finally get a lucky bounce on those plays. As for punting, Matt Wile obliterated a punt for 69 yards to pin Nebraska deep into their own territory at the end of the 2nd quarter that ultimately set up UM in good field position…for a wasted drive with good field position. Again, baby steps. And Gibbons finished 2/2 while Wile missed on a long attempt, because while we can have nice things, we can’t have TOO nice of things.
Best: It’s Almost Over
4 more games until this season is mercifully over. NW should be a dogfight, and who knows what will happen against Iowa and OS…okay, we know what will probably happen against OSU. It rhymes with grape. But at least the basketball season has started, hockey is playing like it has a pulse, and the holidays are coming up and with them, copious alcohol consumption during most gamedays. I’m not throwing away the rest of the season because fans don’t do that, but unlike last year you can tell pretty quickly how bad this team is and, sadly, how little that will probably change in these last couple of games.
This isn’t for you, it’s for me.
The maxim you always hear surrounding hate is that it stems from broken love, that the same fire necessary to burn with unbridled animosity emanates from the same spot in one’s heart that you once left open and accepting. Great novels and a whole bunch of songs have been written about the debilitating power of love and respect as it turns to anger and betrayal, grinding salt and bile into the fresh fissures of the aorta. It is poetic and divine, blind to race or creed, man or woman; the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” of being.
And it’s all crap, at least when you apply it to sport.*
The reason most fans “hate” other teams is because they “hate” losing to people they know, whether personally or as archetypes. I have never loved or particularly cared for most of UM’s rivals despite the fact I actually attended MSU for law school. When some school like Wisconsin or Illinois talks up a budding rivalry and bad blood with the Wolverines, I could not care less because it’s all relative and irrelevant at the same time. People don’t like losing, and if you keep losing to a team a bunch of times you come to hate that feeling. Replace that team with another and the hatred remains the same even though the target has changed.
UM fans hate to lose to Notre Dame because they represent the same blue-blooded traditions and faded glory, the same time-honored notions of scholar-athletes battling it out for school and pride and definitely not for financial gain. Perhaps on some level, it is also because the academic standings of those schools attract individuals cognizant of somewhat-arbitrary scholastic rankings and the “prestige” that can be derived from them. And, well, they’ve been around so long that at some point, you just get sick of seeing them year after year.
With Ohio State and Michigan State, the distaste comes from all of the regional, historical, and national implications found to varying degrees with the Fighting Irish, but also in part because of the cultural differences found at those schools. Whole stadiums could be filled every Saturday by the strawmen we create about our opponents; as fans it is the most natural way to look at the opposition, incredibly shallow in depth but immensely wide in breadth. With UM, the arrogance is the calling card; Buckeyes and Spartans call out UM fans for their “wine and cheese”, their haughty sense of superiority derived from endowments and famous alumni and the “Michigan Man” ideology that supposedly runs through the blood of every Wolverine. They point out the sanctimony in questioning the intelligence and morality of players on the other teams despite the fact that UM was likely recruiting them at some point, and wonder how it is possible to whitewash away all those sins as soon as a player steps foot in Schembechler Hall. And they point out that for all the stirs and echoes of past wins, it hasn’t been pretty recently.
OSU feels like the jock who broke the rules and got away with it largely unscathed, the guy who sweeps the leg even though he probably doesn’t need to. Ohio State has the tradition and resources to stand amongst the giants in the sport, and yet they keep bringing in liars, cheaters, and hypocrites who tweak the rules just enough while winning in every way possible. And perhaps most aggravating for UM, OSU appears to just be “better” than the Wolverines right now, and probably have been for nearly a decade. As UM has undergone a series of painful, largely self-inflicted transitions, OSU just continues on with few hiccups despite far more serious upheaval.
But at least with OSU, it feels like they’ve “earned” that right to be better than UM, given their prior accomplishments and their consistency. In this tortured analogy, they are the dickish prep kid with the nice car who gets the girl; MSU was Ducky. It’s a program with a losing bowl record, virtually no national profile, and a fanbase characterized as a mix of Juggalos and Ax body spray aficionados. It is the very model of a mediocre program, with the status quo being that MSU cared way more about beating UM because they almost never did, and that all of the “little brother” comments were appropriate-if-sophomoric shots at a program and school that was always tugging on the coattails of UM, never able to keep pace. It almost didn’t matter if you hailed from Novi or New York City, Charlevoix or Chicago; if you were a UM student you saw MSU as the collection of brosephs and meatheads (and whatever the female equivalents are) that you tried to escape while in high school. You beat them in the classroom, in the boardroom, and on the football field, and with such regularity it was hard to drum up anything stronger than a slight snicker and faux outrage whenever asked about them.
But that’s changed recently, at least on the football field. While I foresee this being a bit of an apogee for MSU given its so-so recruiting and significant turnover after this season, the fact remains that MSU has dominated this series the past 6 games (going 5-1 and losing that one game on a last-second FG). It is MSU with the consistent identity, the staunch defense and opportunistic offense, the team that gets most of the breaks and tends to win going away. It is the UM fans that yearn for those victories, who treat a game that used to be a semi-emotional speedbump into a major touchstone and measuring stick for the program. And perhaps most surprisingly, the hatred that was once seemingly directed unilaterally now flows both ways, more full with vinegar and vitriol than most can remember. It’s a bit sad in a way that the gap has closed this much between the two schools on the field, but at least now the animosity feels earned.
* I’m sure there are soccer fans who’d argue about national and club rivalries that are born from turncoats, geographic proximity, and broken dreams, and hell Pakistan and India play cricket with missiles pointed at each other. But I’d argue that animosity exists outside of sport; the field or pitch merely provides a sanctioned analog.
Worst: You know, they cancelled the O.C. late as well
This point isn’t going to be sugar-coated: I’m done with this offensive staff. I’m sure the UFR will point out areas where the right playcalls were made but failed because of execution issues (I remember at least two passes in the 3rd quarter where Gardner missed Funchess wide-open, even though at least once it was because he was under heavy pressure). But at some time, the writing is on the wall even if it isn’t totally that Borges’s fault. It has been nearly three years and the team is as schizophrenic and discordinate as ever on the offensive end, and I’m tired of the “wait until next year” refrains that grew stale under Rodriguez. And at least with Rodriguez, you had a high-octane offense with a clear identity that has worked at every other stop.
True, Borges got a bad hand when he showed up at UM, inheriting a playmaker and not a QB with Denard, a guy who couldn’t run his offense and who had few targets to throw at period. He rode it out as best as possible, but it was a bad fit masked by the early success the team had in spite of it; that 11-2 season with memorable wins over ND and OSU gave people the false hope that the talent and coaches could make it work despite the mismatch. Last year happened and everyone realized Borges and Robinson weren’t a good fit, but the expectation was that Gardner would be a better match at least in the short-term. The offensive line, though, has betrayed them the past two years, and the progression and maturation people expected has been, at best, minimal across the board.
Given the right talent, I’m sure Borges could field a productive offense, but that looks to be 2-3 years in the future. In the meantime, this team loses its best WR as well as its best slot threat, its two best linemen, and its only seemingly competent RB. There are some bright spots, but there doesn’t seem to be anything approximating a rainbow on the horizon. What killed RR was his historically poor defenses; outside of the IU and ND games, this offense has been historically bad, and something needs to be done beyond max protect and stacked lines against Minnesota. This is a bit morbid, but at some point you need to Marissa the situation before everyone gets hurt.
Al Borges isn’t a visionary, and there a dozens of coordinators out there who could score 60+ points against IU and, I hope, more than 28 against Akron and 24 against UConn with far less hassle and a bit more coherence. With weeks to prepare, he called a listless game that featured slow-developing running plays, long passes despite heavy pressure, and a continued belief that he’ll make this work if he just keeps slamming his head against the wall. Well, that wall isn’t going anywhere, and all we have is a headache.
I understand that loyalty in a program is hard to break, but this is also a competitive system in which under-performance can’t be allowed to remain unaddressed. Players have been moved in and out of the starting lineup because they haven’t performed “up to the position” while in uniform; it’s time for the guys making those decisions to be held to the same standard.
Worst: Downs and Distances
Here are some downs and distances from this game:
|3rd and 20|
|4th and 21|
|3rd and 18|
|4th and 24|
|2nd and 30|
|3rd and 29|
|4th and 48|
|3rd and 24|
They had three drives of more than 50 yards, two of which ended in FGs and the third in Gardner’s interception. For every other drive combined, UM ended with –7(!!!) yards of total offense. That’s right; with two weeks of preparation and countless promises to adapt, UM produced the worst offensive performance any of us will probably ever see out of the Wolverines. They punted or turned the ball over on downs with 4 or fewer plays 8 times this game. After Raymon Taylor’s interception of Cook late in the 3rd quarter, UM’s subsequent drive resulted in –21 yards of offense and, according to ESPN’s official boxscore, was the end of the game despite there being a whole quarter to go. And honestly, I don’t think that was a misprint.
That isn't an implosion; that's f'ing Katamari on a football field. And we've seen enough of that particular output the past couple of years for a lifetime.
Best: I still have no idea about this defense
I know the numbers weren’t pretty in the end, but MSU gained 153 of their 394 total yards of offense on those two final drives when the game was effectively over. They forced a punt or turnover on 6 other drives, and were victimized a bit by some fluky plays that could have ended drives. It was a competent defensive performance and, if the offense had been able to do virtually anything, probably would have been enough to win the game.
Mattison remains an enigma, and like Al Borges is working with a sub-optimal collection of players. Still, his insistence on 3-man rushes was alternately appropriate and maddening; there were a half-dozen instances where MSU WRs were wide open despite dedicating 8 players to defend against the pass. At the same time, it’s a unit that recorded 1 sack all game, and it came from a corner blitz where Ross and Avery met at the QB. Frank Clark played pretty well in run defense, recording 2.5 TFLs among his 9 tackles, but only hit the QB once and was generally unable to generate much in the way of sustained pressure. Black and Washington were quiet, and given Black’s abilities rushing the passer I would have liked to see him get a chance despite his obvious limitations against the run. Jake Ryan is working his way back in, but this remains a unit of B+ players, and that doesn’t hold up throughout the game.
Langford ended the day with 120 yards but 62 of those came on the last drive. I thought the linebackers played reasonably well, though again it was an ugly game where guys were getting open but Cook just missed them sometimes, while at other times he was able to loft a ball over 4 guys into the only open spot on the field.
Taylor had the lone interception on a nice read but was also the leading tackler with 12, which is okay if you are playing Indiana but not so good when Connor Cook is barely completing 50% of his passes. The rest of the secondary was alternately in great coverage and allowing Bennie Fowler to beat them down the field only to be overthrown because, again, Connor Cook. While some people will cry out for his removal as well, I’m willing to give him a bit more rope simply because I’ve seen strides made from this unit and, outside of IU, they have been above-average all year. Furthermore, Mattison has a track record far more accomplished than others on this staff, and given the recruits coming in it is hard to argue that the defense will not improve as the younger players mature.
I hated it when Mike Hart brought up familiar relations between the two schools, and since then it has only gotten more juvenile and asinine. I get poking fun at a rival, but one would hope that these two fanbases could have created something more creative, more thoughtful and meaningful than insults based on who got out of their metaphorical mother’s uterus first. It all came to a crescendo toward the end of Saturday’s game, when the Spartan faithful began chanting “little sister” in a tone that can best be described a mix between Nelson Muntz and Law & Order: SVU. In one sense it’s dumb to argue that fans have gone too far because of some chanting considering you could go about a billion times farther, but this also feels like a cycle that needs to be broken and not perpetuated by guys who weren’t even in HS when it started. People complain about the ND rivalry taking a hiatus and how that might diminish hostilities needlessly; I’d be fine if UM and MSU skipped a year or two so that both fandoms could look in the mirror and figure out something, anything better than these infantile sayings.
Best: MSU’s Defense is REALLY Good
I was a non-believer of sorts because I thought MSU hadn’t really played a good offense save ND and IU, but this is a terrifyingly-good defense that should pose major issues for OSU in the conference title game. Though it lacks elite athleticism, it plays with the type of precision and consistency you expect from a well-coached squad, and outside of a couple of plays UM could do absolutely nothing against it. It will look demonstrably different next year when many of its best players graduate and (I suspect) Narduzzi moves on, but it should remain a solid unit going forward as long as Dantonio is at the helm. That said…
Worst: Penalties were turned off, apparently
My gawd are those corners reliant on the referees not throwing flags. I get there is some physicality expected on passing routes, but there was not a single pass interference call (sorry Brian, you were off by 1) made despite Funchess and Gallon carrying corners down the field like they were f’ing Ents. I’m not saying the game would have been totally different with a couple of flags, but ND’s 4 PIs against MSU were a major reason they were able to move the ball semi-successfully down the field. Even my wife, who is 19-and-a-half months pregnant (perhaps slight exaggeration) thought it was pretty egregious, and she has a parasite inside her trying to steal all of her iron.
Worst: Poor Damn Devin and Fitz – The Duet
Gardner had a decent enough game when he wasn’t getting murdered by MSU’s pass rush, which recorded 7 sacks and 7 more hits. He completed about 52% of his passes for 210 yards, averaging about 7.8 ypa and having a couple of drops by his receivers halting drives. His rushing total was marred by losing 46 yards on sacks and that horrible snap, and the hits ultimately led to his removal with (one hopes) a relatively minor injury. Seeing him be lifted off the field, mud caked on his jersey while clearly wincing in pain, and then running another play was a bit heartbreaking, even though he nearly blew a third-down conversion by pulling up early. It wasn’t heroic, but anyone who questions whether or not this kid is trying his best out there needs to step away from the keyboard.
As for Fitz, what can you say? MSU has the best rushing defense in the country by a mile, and they showed it again this game. He only ran the ball 8 times, but limited the TFLs to one and generally took what the defense gave him. In a different game perhaps he could have produced better results, but I kind of doubt it. His senior year will likely be remembered for returning from a gruesome injury to play behind a young, under-performing line and getting beaten up in the process. As noted, I could have done without the public comments, but he’s clearly soldiering on and at this point, I don’t think you can expect much else from him.
Worst: What about Hoke?
I’ll keep this brief because this is totally speculative: he’s earned himself some leeway with the recruiting and the early wins, but there needs to be some changes made to this program going into next year. As noted earlier, I think the offensive system needs to be overhauled with a new coordinator, and that includes hiring a dedicated QB coach and not being so tied to a single vision despite mounting evidence it isn’t going to happen with the players available. The defense is a work in progress but one that feels like it has potential given continued recruiting and player maturation. Mattison is not above reproach, but enough smart people swear by him that there has to be something there. And outside of Ohio, this team still feels like the favorite against Iowa, NW, and Nebraska, and that’s 9 wins with a possible bowl win. Let’s not throw a parade or anything, but given how this season has unfolded it isn’t horrible. Plus, given what happened with RR, this program needs some stability even if it is somewhat mediocre.
Best: The Next Two Weeks
Looking at the schedule, what once looked like a hellish November now seems positively bearable. Nebraska can’t stop anyone, and NW can’t stop the saddest song from playing in an infinite loop. Neither is a gimme win, but I’d be a bit disappointed with even a split. Much will rely on Gardner being healthy and the offense continuing its Jekyll and Hyde home/road split, but luckily UM won’t have to play a team like MSU again this year, and just typing that makes me a little sadder. Ah well, I’ve gone this far.
Unlike last week, this is pretty positive. It was actually quite a bit harder to write, though, which makes me think that I’m more engaged when I’m in a bad mood. Let’s hope I’m not handed another opportunity to test that theory this season.
I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It's so fuckin' heroic. – George Carlin
Last week against PSU, the UM defense put forth an “heroic” effort to hold the Nittany Lions to 43 points over 4 OTs. It was the type of game where the obvious structural fissures and blatant player deficiencies you usually expect after giving up 43 points simply did not exist; you could pick at the seams but the whole tapestry did not unravel spectacularly.
Against Indiana, UM gave up 47 points in regulation, allowing 572 yards in total offense and 8 scoring drives that averaged 53 yards on only 5 plays per. On paper, it looked like most of the nightmare games UM had defensively under RR or any time they played a spread team like Oregon or Jarious Jackson-led Notre Dame under Carr. Just one of those games where the defense couldn’t get off the field to save its life, and the opposition was, at best, slightly inconvenienced on its way to the endzone.
But a funny thing happened on the way to eradication: the defense played well enough to win. In no way should that be construed as “great” or even “good” because, well, this is still a results-based sport and for all of the advanced metrics and acronyms, 7.5 yard per play (and closer to 8 if you factor out that last desperation drive) allowed isn’t going to cut it.
That said, this wasn’t a game where UM was outclassed or, really, even out-schemed. True, there were a couple of busted plays caused by the Hoosiers’ maddening tempo, including a 59-yarder to Latimer for the game’s first score as well as as couple of long completions in the 3rd quarter when Roberson found Stoner for a 42-yarder and Wynn Worst Waldo’ing for a TD. But in addition to the two interceptions recorded by the defense, there were probably 3-4 others that were close to being turnovers, including the 67 yarder by Hughes and a sequence in the 2nd quarter where Taylor (?) had a near-pick on Roberson that was followed by a crazy 33-yard TD to Wynn to pull IU within 7. As with last week’s post-Crisis final drive, those plays sometimes happen against you without rhyme or reason.
And after surrendering 23 points to IU in the 3rd quarter, the defense clamped down in the 4th, allowing only 7 points and forcing two turnovers (including a quick one after the Gardner fumble) as well as a game-ending sack by Frank Clark. For 3/4 of the game, the defense held IU to about a TD a quarter; a couple of breakdowns and luck made a 16-point win look closer than it was. And yes, saying a “couple of breakdowns” is like saying The Room had a “couple of issues” with editing and plot. Given all that, while I wouldn’t frame this game as a particularly heroic one by Mattison’s crew, it was at least “recklessly effective".
Best: The Only Defense is a Good Offense
I’ll get into my feelings about the offense later on (spoiler alert: MSU scored 42 points against IU in a single game!) but it must be said that the offense performed exactly the role it needed to in this game. IU’s offense is incredibly fast-paced and up-tempo; to steal a line from official MSU sponsor TapOut, IU tries to overwhelm the opposition with punches in bunches. Kevin Wilson, in-between absolutely eradicating Big Red gum and fuming during tense interviews with former UM offensive linemen, predicates a fast-strike offense that never wins the TOP battle because it doesn’t need to.
Early on, though, it seemed like the defense had IU basically figured out; UM forced a punt on 4 of the first 5 drives, including a couple of 3-and-outs. Of course, they did get tempo’d on a 4 play, 72 yard TD drive, but overall it seemed like IU’s offense was getting stymied by UM’s tight coverage and solid line play. At the same time, UM’s offense kept chugging along, scoring 4 TDs on their first 6 possessions and having a FG blocked because science.
But starting midway through the 2nd quarter all the way to the start of the 4th, IU started rolling with Tre Roberson and the defense had no real answer. All of a sudden, the defense couldn’t get off the field without giving up points, it seemed like IU had a 14 guys on every play, and my leftover Pad Thai tasted not like a bastardized version of a Bangkok dish but merely despair. UM’s only hope was to weather the storm by matching IU’s scoring barrage, one nutso drive at a time.
And that’s exactly what they did, with a couple of bumps along the way. Both fumbles were quickly rectified by Thomas Gordon INTs that UM was able to capitalize on, and the only other non-score on those 9 second-half possessions was a quick 3-and-out. There was no “field position battle” or alternative strategy by either offense; the goal was to score a touchdown on every drive, and while IU certainly was the faster squad out there, UM just kept plugging along at an efficient pace until IU’s mistakes caught up with them. The announcers characterized it as two boxers throwing haymakers; I thought it more like one of those 40-yard dash videos where a couple of players were superimposed on top of each other to distinguish individual progress during the sprint.
Both offenses were tenuously in competition with each other, but it felt more like a race to 60 points than anything resembling a pitched back-and-forth confrontation. It was admittedly somewhat surreal to watch, though in the joyous sense of seeing your team decimate an overmatched opponent and in the sense of, you know, the rest of the season.
Worst: The Shuffle
A football team is an ever-changing and evolving creature; due to injuries, performance, or purely feel, changes need to be made throughout the year to get as close to perfection as possible. With UM, the most significant and consistent changes have been made to the offensive line, which if last week’s special 27 for 27 didn’t drive the point home, is a bit in shambles. While the tackles are both experienced and will be playing in the NFL next year, the rest of the line is ludicrously young and/or inexperienced while also experiencing nearly week-by-week upheaval between the guards and center. Both Joe Burzynski and Erik Magnuson received their first starts of the year, replacing recent first-time starters Chris Bryant and Kyle Kallis, and once Burzynski went out due to injury Kyle Bosch stepped in as a true freshman.
While I do not doubt for a moment that these changes are due to both real and perceived lack of performance, one has to wonder if all of these changes are at least partially responsible for those deficiencies. The one thing you hear most often about an offensive line is that it benefits immensely from familiarity and maturation as a unit, that the more often these same 5 guys line up the better they’ll be as they learn the line calls, identify blocking assignments, and generally get a feel for how each other plays. But when you are replacing 3/5 of your line every couple of weeks with progressively less experienced players, while also installing a bunch of wonky-ish formations, you really shouldn’t be surprised if the same problems and holes keep reappearing. For example, on Fitz’s first TD on 4th and 1, the inside of the line was absolutely crushed; only be bouncing outside did Fitz find the endzone. Now, if that sounds familiar to you, welcome to the 2013-2014 Michigan Wolverines. Your pitchfork and Thundershirt is in the mail.
I know the stats say the line did a decent job (4.6 ypc on 54 carries) run-blocking and only gave up 2 sacks, but it again looked like a line in transition, which is not a positive sign 2/3 of the way into the season.
Best: Secret Santa
I’m not sure what the Secret Santa policy is on the team, but if I’m Jeremy Gallon I would give Devin Funchess all of the gift baskets given how his move to WR has opened up the field for Rocket Boots. While Funchess pulled in the lion’s share of the catches against Minny, Gallon has 21 catches for 464 yards and 3 TDs in the past two games and looks to be back to his All B1G-caliber mark most expected after the ND game.
Similarly, Devin Gardner has transformed from a terrifying pick-six machine into what most people expected when the year began: a dynamic playmaker who will make some bad throws but who can also pick you apart on the ground or in the air when the weapons around him are thoroughly deployed. Obviously the ultimate goal would be for Funchess to follow the Tyler Eifert model of terrifying TE/WR who can actually block on running plays, but so far his move to WR has not only led to great numbers for him (23.1 ypc and 3 TDs in the past 3 games, which would rank him #5 nationally if he kept it up for the year) but also a demonstrative improvement for the other players in the passing game.
Worst: Knowing is Half the Battle, Unless Said Battle is Against Indiana’s Defense
Jeremy Gallon started off UM’s second drive with a simple WR screen that he turned into a 70 yard completion. It was a great playcall at the time because the Indiana DBs had shifted their coverage distance from “city-sized” cushion to a “state-sized” one, and Gallon is hard enough to tackle when you are on top of him that giving him any space to move was an invitation for awesomeness. So a little later on, Devin Gardner took the snap, faked what I presume was a bubble screen, and handed off to Green for a nice gain. One can only presume at that moment, Heiko did something like this:
Certainly the liveblog exploded with a mixture of jubilation and confusion; happy that the playbook was opening up a bit but also wondering if either Al Borges was purposely trolling the fanbase or if he was seriously considering using gimmicky ideas like “misdirection” and “adapting to the defense.”
Unfortunately, I’ve seen this Al Borges before; it isn’t Good Borges or Bad Borges, but instead Irrelevant Borges because his playcalling was never tested by a competent defensive unit. Call me a Borges Denier, but I don’t even know if he was calling plays this week; a 14-year-old fan could have snuck into the booth and nobody thought to check.
IU couldn’t really stop the run, even when the offensive line brought out five Vuvuzelas and announced where they were going. Penetration and swarming sometimes led to stops, but even this offensive line was able to impose its will. Heck, the one TO by Fitz was due to Gardner trying a toss play that probably would have worked HAD THEY EVER PRACTICED IT. Even with this mishap, Fitz had his beast game of the year by a country mile, scoring 4 times while averaging 4.7 yards on 32 carries and a long of 27. And when a wide receiver sets a conference record while a QB sets both passing and total yardage records at the same school where Denard Robinson played Notre Dame and Illinois numerous times, you know the secondary was just escorting the ball to the receivers.
A win is a win, though, and 751 yards in total offense (on only 83 plays!) is 128 more yards given up against than any other competitor this season (Mizzou put up 623). Al Borges called a fine game and the offense executed immensely well. But the free-wheeling, spread-ish offense we saw by Borges isn’t going to stick around against the rest the conference slate, just like it didn’t against OSU last year, Iowa in 2011, or PSU this year. If anything, this game will simply be viewed as reinforcing the tendencies we’ve seen already, except that instead of averaging under a yard per carry IU’s derpitude resulted in a record-setting game. It remains an offense that screams ‘zig’ (Devin-centric attack with some up-tempo thrown in) while Borges remains determined to zag. It worked this week, but that’s the thing about Indiana: you only get to play them once.
Worst: Poor Secondary or
Best: Limited YACs?
If you haven’t gathered yet, I’m relatively positive about the defense this week, at least compared to my very lukewarm feelings about the offense. That doesn’t mean it was a great day by the unit, especially the secondary. As noted earlier, a couple of those long completions were due to dumb luck or great throws (Jourdan Lewis in particular was victimized by a great throw along the sideline), but IU clearly identified Raymon Taylor as a weak spot and attacked him mercilessly early on. He led the team with 4 pass breakups but also was in on 9 tackles, including 7 solo. By comparison, Countess was only responsible for 1 PBU and 3 tackles, and outside of a couple of plays seemed to keep pace. When one of your corners is seeing that much action, its usually not because he’s just flying all over the field, or at least not purposely doing so within the flow of the defense.
A number of IU’s long gains were because the secondary couldn’t get into position properly, either failing to align in the right coverage or simply trailing plays that started up before they were set. Outside of more preparation against this type of offense or “being better” I’m not sure how the unit can really improve on its performance, at least as currently constructed. Thomas Gordon’s two INTs definitely alleviate the sting a bit, though I’m guessing at least a couple of the long TDs were because either Gordon or Wilson failed to shift over to help out the DBs.
That said, there were relatively few blown plays resulting from missed tackles. The 67-yarder was somewhat due to a failure to tackle after the contested reception, and I’m sure I’m missing another couple plays, but usually a defender was there when the pass was completed to limit the damage. The longest run by a back all day (and apparently all year) was 20 yards, which is totally acceptable given the circumstances.
Best: I Must Be Drunk
This is apparently where I absolutely lose my mind and talk up the defense some more. Sure it was a cheap one at the end of the game, but Frank Clark had another sack and has 4.5 in 4 games. Given the speed by which IU gets the ball out, the two sacks recorded by the team are understandable. The line’s continued improvement along with Ryan’s return gives me hope that there might be some disruption forthcoming. And the linebackers, in particular Bolden, played reasonably well, though I’d trust Brian’s detailed analysis far more than my naked-eye observations. IU had some success running the ball, especially once Roberson took over, but it always felt limited, as if the defense was giving up 4-5 yards on the ground to protect against the pass. Probably something related to bending vs. breaking.
I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, and if you haven’t read it yet I won’t spoil it except to say it is absolutely like every other book he’s ever written. It’s the type of book wherein you’ll be annoyed that he is playing a little fast and loose with statistics, the underlying results of papers, and how a quasi-fictional narrative can be spun in a pop-sci book, but also glean enough interesting anecdotes and believable results that you’ll feel slightly smarter at your next soiree .
Personally, I enjoy the books but take them with a hefty grain of salt; I definitely wouldn’t use them as citations but I have looked into some of the topics more deeply after reading his takes. And one of the stronger takeaways from this book is that strengths and weaknesses are often subjective, based purely on the perceptions and biases of each party involved.
The titular tale of David and Goliath is turned on its head, as Gladwell discusses the fact that powerful but immobile Goliath (who likely was suffering from the same condition that afflicted people like Gheorghe Muresan and Andre the Giant) was no match for the fleet-footed David because the battlefield favored the swift artillery, only nobody had considered disrupting the paradigm until the stone fell the giant. He then pointed to numerous other examples in which the “underdog” military held its ground against a superior force by fighting in an atypical style, and only when these smaller forces adopted more “classical” styles that favored numerical advantage over other factors did they start to lose. In effect, he argues, the status quo works best when everyone agrees to abide by its terms; deviate even a bit and the inefficiencies are there for the taking.
Watching IU on offense, I saw how their up-tempo offense could flummox defenses for games; when the offense is already lined up mere seconds after the ball is placed, the defense has a very small window in which to react and respond. On offense, you only need that one point of failure, that one missed assignment or sloppy tackle, to score. Your line doesn’t have to be big and powerful, and your skill players can be pretty average, because you are maximizing the issues created by slow-reacting defenders getting into position.
But on defense, everyone really does need to be on the same page, or at least a reasonable facsimile. That’s why you typically see the most successful defenses against spread attacks be veteran-laden; you need kids who can react to the formations with minimal communication from the coaches. RR’s offenses ran into problems when the PSU’s, MSU’s, and OSU’s of the world could keep pace. And that points to the reality that defenses are far more reliant on overall talent than offense; you can disguise coverages and blitz from as many angles as you want, but you need guys who JUST MAKE PLAYS to keep you in the game. IU doesn’t have that, and that’s how a pretty average offense was able to drop 63 points on them. I shudder to think how IU would handle a team like themselves, but more talented; OkSt. or TT would run them off the field by halftime, and I don’t even think the NCAA would let them match up against Oregon. It’s why when the clearly-aroused Glen Mason spoke of IU’s youth on defense and the expected improvement it would see as it matured, I had to scoff a bit. For all of Indiana’s polish on offense, that defense hasn’t been “good” in decades, and no amount of “coaching them up” and father time will matter if the players just aren’t that talented.
I guess my point is that while I’m never going to be a big fan of Al Borges or the offensive philosophy of this team, I care far more about how this team’s defense evolves and grows over the next couple of years. It is undoubtedly cliche, but you have to be able to stop the other guy at least a couple of times in order to win, and a dominant defense with a competent-if-infuriating offense feels like a more efficient outfit than a hack-and-slash offense with a sieve in the front 7. Obviously one can dream of both, but the fact we have yet to really see a team pull it off makes me think it is harder than one thinks. Given the coaching staff and the philosophy they have installed, I’m bracing myself to see the status quo shaken up once or twice a season but only as a tease.
Bestest: Bouncing Baby Programming Note
This is probably more personal than many of you care to know, but BronxBlueWife and I are expecting our first mini Wolverine in the next week or so. Because I am a shot-caller, I’m hoping the baby arrives during the bye week and I’m at least semi-capable of scribbling down thoughts thru the end of the season. But if not, this might become a less-frequent weekly, at least until the sleep deprivation shifts from a sharp pain to a dull, perpetual one.
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.