and... i like them? I think I like them.
Due to time constraints and the fact that broken records sound even worse the second time around, I promise this post will be considerably abbreviated compared to earlier entries. To offset what I can only imagine will be a massive downgrade in creativity and humor, I will employ the time-honored and totally not schmaltzy “theme” for this week’s synopsis. I leave it to the reader to determine just what that through line is.
Worst: Ruff Offense
Let me set the stage for you: In a flurry to end the 3rd quarter, UM finished off an epic 75-yard drive with Toussaint’s 35-yard TD run, cutting UConn’s lead to 21-14 (!). The defense then weathered a couple of early completions to force UConn into a long FG attempt, which they missed. So UM took over, down 7 with the ball and driving to start the 4th quarter. A personal foul call on UConn set the Wolverines up on the 31 yard line, and it looked like the team was finally starting to find its “white people dancing at a wedding”-level rhythm offensively.*
On the first play, Al Borges looked into the BAD (Burn Another Down) part of the playbook and called a Fitz run that I can only imagine ended with him running into 1 or more offensive linemen’s posteriors 3 yards in the backfield and scampering forward for no gain. (Yes, this is foreshadowing). On second down, UConn’s totally unstoppable 4-man rush got pressure up the middle and flushed Gardner to the right side, where he held onto the ball while the 14-year-old controlling him kept pressing the stiff-arm and spin buttons instead of throwing the ball away, resulting in a 3rd and 17. The next play, at this point either a designed run or a de-facto run considering both the pressure Gardner was under and his clear discomfort in throwing the ball deep, resulting in a 15-yard pickup and 4 and 2 at the UConn 23.
Down 7 and with no promise that the offense would be that close to scoring again, Brady Hoke left the offense out there. As people noted in the liveblog, if UM isn’t able to get two measly yards against UConn, then so be it. After a Husky TO to think it over (I’m sure the conversation went along the lines of “easily dispatch of the offensive lineman in front of you and tackle the guy with the ball, fine gentlemen” because that seemed to be all UConn defenders needed to know on this night and apparently every conversation in my head is sponsored by Foppish Dandys), the playcall was the most obvious QB keeper possible, which still nearly worked except Devin fumbled the ball near the first-down marker and recovered about a foot and a half short. Turnover on downs, cats went running, beers were spilled, various furniture was kicked, etc.
If there was a better microcosm of UM’s offense the past couple of weeks, I’d like to see it. Against Notre Dame, I compared UM’s attack to a stacked Madden offense and wondered if it was the best/most dynamic of the last 15 years. In the last two games, against two of the worst defenses statistically in the FBS, UM has had 25 meaningful drives and recorded 7 TDs versus 9 TOs, including 2 that were returned for TDs by the opposition. It is an offense in free-fall, unable to really do anything particularly well outside of letting Devin run for his life or test Jeremy Gallon’s ability to enter inner orbit by throwing at the garden gnome standing on top of his helmet. I’ll get into more detail about the various faces of the offense below, but this display was actually more disheartening than against Akron simply because the last game felt like it could be chalked up to under-preparedness and/or lackadaisical play; a week later it sure seemed like UM was trying to get yardage and UConn would have none of it.
* Full disclosure: I’m a pretty stereotypical white guy, and my wedding (despite having a pretty kick-ass hora in this Gentile’s opinion), would have probably been a decent backdrop for a Dave Chappelle bit.
Worst: Stop digging!
Remember when Devin Gardner was spinning away from trouble and scampering for first downs, throwing bullets while under pressure, or calmly throwing the ball out of bounds when, heaven forbid, he was flushed from the pocket? Yeah, those were the days…of early September.
Last year, one of the things this blog and others raved about Devin was his field vision and willingness to keep looking downfield, trying to make a play with either his arm or his legs, unafraid to throw the ball out of bounds Now, every time he feels pressure (read: virtually every time he steps back to pass), he’s spinning around aimlessly or immediately tucking the ball and taking a loss even when he is a decent subway ride from the pocket. On the last drive of the 1st quarter, Gardner took a 16-yard loss scrambling around the field, never once seemingly contemplating throwing the ball away. Though he had thrown an INT on the last drive, it was this play that seemed the far more onerous one, portending a remarkably frustrating outing for a player that was seemingly exceeding the massive hype he had coming into the season. He went from being the best QB in the conference not backing up Braxton Miller to leading the nation in INTs (and I presume TOs though I don’t have that stat in front of me), and being one of the top 30 scoring players in the conference based on points scored for the other team.
Most of those turnovers are the result of simply trying to do too much: throwing across his body while being chased, trying to thread a ball through 3 defenders, lobbing bombs that come up short or are off the mark, failing to protect the ball because he is trying to twist, juke, or stretch for a couple more yards. And all this adds up to ever-deeper holes that UM has to ever-more-desperately try to climb out of. Down 3 late to Akron after seemingly having the game in hand entering the 4th quarter mushroomed into being down 14 to UConn midway into the 3rd quarter. While this phenomenon is certainly not solely due to Gardner’s play, he remains the focal point of a sputtering unit that must return to at least competent form if this team stands any chance in this division, let alone against some high-profile bowl opponent in the future.
Best: Just Roll with It
So for the first time all season, someone other than Gardner broke 100 yards rushing AND 5 ypc. It wasn’t pretty by any stretch, as Fitz had 12 of his 14 runs go for 3 yards or less, including a couple of times where he received the ball effectively off Miller’s ass as he was driven yards into the backfield. It remains very feast-and-famine with him lugging the ball, with about 30% of his 120 yards coming on the long TD run to halve the deficit in the 3rd quarter. Though the team as a whole failed to break 4 yards per carry, some of that can be attributed to some ill-timed runs by Gardner that resulted in lost yardage or minimal gain. And yes, I recognize just how poor the UConn defense was coming into the game; I woke up this morning muttering “Towson” and cursing the liveblog for reminding me of it, though it should be noted that the Tigers are 4-0 and have been obliterating teams so far this season.
For better or for worse, though, this is probably the best fans can hope for this outfit during the conference slate: a depressing number of minimal gains punctuated by some massive runs from Gardner as well as Fitz when he is able to make the first 2 or 3 guys miss. It will obviously be imperative for the line and TEs to cut down on holding penalties and other self-inflicted wounds, and someone needs to send whatever football-related methodone is required to wean Borges off his addiction to inside “power” runs, but I thought Fitz ran better in that second half (81 yards and 2 TDs with only 1 negative run and a couple rushes for no gain), and combined with Gardner’s mobility (provided he HOLDS ONTO THE DAMN BALL!) could provide a reasonably approximation to the rushing attack from 2011.
I do expect that some of the freshmen will see more time after the bye week, but I find it telling that Smith only played on special teams and Green didn’t touch the ball once all game. Minny’s highly-ranked, if lightly-tested, rushing defense should be a decent barometer as to whether this was a return of sorts for the running game or baseless optimism.
Worst: Now It’s Just Embarrassing
And you thought it couldn’t get worst than last week against Akron for this offensive line? Well, look what just happened, strawperson who watches UM football and thinks things can’t get any worse. UM’s line got served* by a unit that came into the game without a sack and 6 TFL’s (they record 3 and 10, respectively, against the Wolverines), and added 3 more QB hits. And beyond the obvious stats, there were numerous times when 3 and 4-man rushes were either driving Gardner from the pocket or forcing Fitz to bounce to the outside on runs. It was a dominating performance the likes of which people expected from Notre Dame’s NFL-stacked line, not the ramshackle one in Storrs.
While I want to believe that there will be changes made to the line during the bye week, what troubles me is that outside of Bryant at guard, I’m not sure who one can reasonably expect to step in and be an upgrade over the players already logging the reps. I mean, the guys out there won whatever amounted to “competitions” for these spots going into the season; to expect someone to come out of the woodworks (beyond major position shifts) seems like a pipedream. There should be some natural improvements just through familiarity and experience, especially at RG with Kallis, but it will fall on Borges and Funk to figure out a workable solution with the pieces they have on the field, a solution significantly better than the product that’s be trotted out there so far.
* In the same vein as my complaints about Varsity Blues movie logic issues, how did the the officials of the dancing competition at the end of You Got Served allow two teams team up, plus add about 10 new members, prior to the finals? Perhaps they were blinded by Steve Harvey’s teeth.
Meh: Air Dud
I’m breaking out the rare “Meh” when it comes to the receivers this game. Gardner was a mess, completing less than 50% of his passes and throwing 2 INTs. He locked onto Gallon a couple of times, one leading to the first INT, and was bouncing or sailing balls to open receivers throughout the game. At first blush I thought the receivers and ends were having trouble getting open, but on a couple of those tuck-and-runs in the second half it looked like Gardner ran through his progressions in about half a second and, either because of real or perceived pressure, just took off and ran the ball. This unit remains distressingly shallow in consistent playmakers (basically Gallon and that’s it), but there is only so much they can do when the defense is able to get pressure and stop the run without giving up coverage. As Chris Spielman (*shudder*) accurately pointed out, UConn didn’t respect UM’s running game and, thus, stayed back in coverage and really limited what UM’s offense could do throwing the ball. Given the fact that the Huskies were breaking in basically a whole new secondary, this was an opportunity for the receivers to reestablish some consistency we saw earlier in the season, and opportunity that they (get ready for the pun) dropped.
Best: Release the Chess-hound!
I do want to point out that Jehu Chesson again showed flashes of the playmaker this team desperately needs to complement Gallon and Dileo. I know he over-ran the ball on Gardner’s second INT and under-ran a probably TD after he beat the UConn coverage by a step in the 4th quarter, but on both plays you saw the speed people raved about. Both misplays seem to be due as much to inexperience as anything else, as freshmen coming from programs where QB play was sub-optimal are want to struggle with ball tracking in the air. Still, I expect him to continue to make strides in the passing game as the season progresses.
Also, he absolutely trucked UConn punt returners on two plays, including forcing a fumble that was recovered by the Huskies in that first half. He’s clearly not afraid of contact and, more importantly, is big enough to actually do something about it. Given the continuing struggles of the TEs to block in the running game, this physicality needs to continue.
Best: Here they come!
Only because of the offensive line’s continued struggles has the defensive line’s woes been (slightly) overlooked, but in this game they finally were able to generate both a consistent pass rush as well as a stout-ish run defense. UConn averaged under 2 ypc and under 5 ypa if you ignore the 26-yard completion on 4th-and-30 to end the game, and UM recorded 4 sacks to go along with 4 additional TFLs. Frank Clark recorded 2 of those sacks to go along with 5 tackles total, and Jibreel continued his solid season by recording half a sack to go along with 6 tackles and consistently getting penetration inside. Black will never be your prototypical tackle, and he probably won’t be able to hold up against bruising lines dedicated to running the ball (i.e. Minny in two weeks), but the “poor man’s Brandon Graham” analogies don’t seem off.
The secondary remains a work in progress, but it held up reasonably well. They were bailed out a bit by Geremy Davis’s overturned TD catch in the end zone, but (I believe) that was followed up by the punting fiasco that led to UConn’s last score. The LB’s in coverage remain troubling (I know, except for that one really GOOD thing I detail below), and guys seemed to find a way to get open up the seams way more frequently than UM’s guys do.
It wasn’t a dominant performance by any means, but it was a positive sign after not being able to generate anything resembling a defense in the second half last week against Akron. UConn barely broke 200 yards in total offense, only one drive longer than 40 yards, and 14 of those 21 points were either on the offense or special teams. Let’s hope this is a return of the Swag.
Best: Air Bud II: Morgan’s Electric Boogaloo
“Woodsonian” is both a strong and made-up word, but Morgan’s game-changing INT was a thing of beauty and really seemed to energize the team. I know there are different schools of thought regarding momentum, and I’m generally not a believer in any long-term effect, but I do think that it can exist within a small context, such as a single game or even just a half. UM looked horrible for most of the game offensively, and UConn had just stuffed Gardner’s 4-down conversion attempt. The defense had been on the field for large swaths of the game, and any score by UConn probably would have meant the game. So when Morgan skied for that pick and returned it to the 12, UM had new life. On the next play, Fitz took the ball outside and scored the tying TD. From that point on, UConn recorded 1 first down and 26 total yards on 2 drives, basically all those yards coming on a meaningless completion on 4th down. He didn’t “save” the season by any stretch, but it was the play of the game.
Worst: No More Norfleeting?
I’m definitely keeping my head on a swivel watching out for the banhammer on this one, but I’m starting to think the potential of Norfleet may never live up to the actual product on the field. He has seemingly lost the faith of the coaching staff on punt returns after muffing a couple in the past weeks, and while he remains a kickoff threat he’s rarely used in the offense except on obvious running plays and (maybe) a couple of passing routes when the team goes empty backfield. He remains very fast but has a season long of 15 yards as a receiver and one 38-yard run against CMU. He also has a penchant for getting tripped up on contact, and while that isn’t unexpected for such a small guy, it also doesn’t warrant much in the way of additional playing time.
Worst: Hold Onto the Damn Ball!
I noted this already, but UM lost the turnover battle 5 to 1, and while the Jones kicking the ball on punt coverage was just poor luck (it seemed like either a lack of communication or awareness that led to him being so close), the other 4 TOs were absolutely in the flow of the offense. Cut that number in half and I think UM wins this comfortably; they’ve been “lucky” the past couple of weeks that the opponents haven’t been able to really capitalize. I’m not saying Hoke needs to break out the duct tape, but the ball needs to stop hitting the ground or landing in other teams’ hands.
On the positive side, Wile booted 5 punts for an average of 42 yards, and Uconn nearly returned the punt turnover favor on Chesson’s big hit. So after last week’s Shankapalooza, it was nice to see UM even out the field position battle. Plus, Gibbons hit another FG, adding his name to another record.
Worst: Seriously, State of Connecticut?
I commented on the liveblog that apparently the University of Connecticut paid for the new seats they added to the stadium by diverting pay from groundskeeping, because that field was horrible. I’ve seen moderately-sized HSes with better turf, and it clearly affected both teams throughout the game. Coupled with the fact that the stadium is across from a Cabela’s and is 30 miles(!!) away from the main campus, and you can see why everyone except Connecticut’s AD was pushing for the game to be played at a bigger, better stadium. I get not every school will have the type of tradition and facilities as UM, but this is (in theory) the major state school in one of the richest states in the US; they should be able to provide a better gameday experience.
Best: Bye Week! Let’s All Get Excited!
Next week being a bye means I can finally get back to working…I mean doing work around the house…I mean spending more time with BronxBlueWife…I mean playing GTA V. Yeah, that sounds right.
I know you feel, John…
Worst: Totally Meta
To let you in a bit on how the sausage is made with one of these posts, I usually sit down with my laptop during the game and play around in the liveblog while taking some really cursory notes. While I’m sure I could figure out how to watch lineplay and defensive adjustments intricately in order to make really astute observations about particular players, there are lots of people here at MGoBlog who do a great job with that level of detail and, frankly, I doubt I’d be able to add much. No, the Best and Worst is all about a layman’s observations of a game, with (I hope) a bit of humor, some fun long-form ideas, and insufferable references to wrestlers and 90’s television shows.
Well, usually my notes take on a bit of a narrative as a game progresses; I inevitably start ordering comments into Offense, Defense, Special Teams, Coaching, etc. buckets, so by the end I’ve got my talking points, as they are, laid out. Given the opponent, I figured they’d be succinct and pretty general; it’s hard to derive too much from a blowout.
Well, by the last 4 minutes of the game, my notes spanned 2 pages typed and, if my keyboard was both sentient and possessed the necessary funds to file documents with a court, would be Exhibit A of a battery suit brought against me. People joke about how typing “OMFG” or “ROFL” negates the emotion you are attempting to convey, like telling someone how funny something is instead of actually laughing. But part of the reason you use these shorthands, though, is because “nfsakjf528095353u55b25jewrnijrggrehjigh3u04u-421” followed by your dog fleeing the room is hard to convey in words. So yeah, based on my notes…
Worst: Goliath has Fans Too
I’m usually not one to complain too much about announcers except if they go full Spielman and openly root for one team over the other, but the announcers were extremely excited about the possibility of Akron beating UM. And that got me thinking; seemingly everyone loves the David vs. Goliath matchups that end with David victorious. At first blush, it totally makes sense; David represents the everyman, overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds with character, ingenuity, and guile. To root for David is to root for the human spirit and the impossible dream. Rooting for Goliath is like rooting for the house in blackjack.
But here’s the thing; being “Goliath” is not free of context, nor is it purely a “you vs. them” dynamic wherein everyone agrees how the story should end. In other words, Goliath has fans too, and in most cases they don’t view themselves as the bully, the victor, the unstoppable force OR the immovable object. Goliath is just a guy who is blessed with some physical advantages that he honed with rigorous training and passionate loyalty to a cause. In the eyes of Goliath, he’s entering into fair combat against another warrior who just happens to be smaller than him and who wields a slingshot. He’s not Razor Ramon or Vince McMahon, “heels” personified who want nothing more than to ruin the face’s day. No, He’s not the “bad guy”, unless “being tall and strong” and winning most of the time are dastardly traits. He is the Big Bad because the only lens used to view him is as the seemingly unattainable or antithesis model, the personification of David’s shortcomings.
So saying you love David vs. Goliath games is really saying you like to see the big guy lose not necessarily because you have a rooting interest in David or against Goliath, but because you don’t want to be reminded that not everyone has David’s problems. On some level, you hold Goliath’s strengths and accomplishments against him, believing something must be cosmically wrong to explain his winning ways, and that a loss will somehow right this off-kilter universe.
But that really isn’t fair to either party; Akron is just a bad FBS program trying to find its footing and UM is the winningest program in college football history. UM has all of those wins because, for most of its existence, it has fielded talented, well-coached teams that beat other ones on the football field. Akron, not so much, but that isn’t because of something UM did. And, humorously, the tables are turned in the other “football”: Akron has been one of the best college soccer teams for years now while UM is the “upstart” that scored a major 1-0 upset over the Zips a couple of years ago during an otherwise poor season.
I’d say millions of people partook in today’s game in some way (live, TV, radio, internet, etc.), and a significant number of them are probably fans of UM football. They wanted to see UM win for any number of reasons, and few if any thought Akron winning would be a “good thing”. Russians certainly didn’t think losing to the US at the Olympics was a good idea, nor are Phi Slamma Jamma fans clamoring for Lorenzo Charles (RIP) memorial jerseys, and I’m guessing Lloyd Carr isn’t sending Armanti Edwards holiday cards. Had Akron pulled off the win, it would have been heralded as a huge upset both for the year as well as historically, and people who “like” upsets would have another moment to cheer about. But for the fans of Goliath, David is just the guy who got lucky, and no amount of culturally-endorsed schadenfreude will change that.
Today’s game ended with Goliath winning, though it was obviously closer than expected. The narrative is that Akron gave UM all they could handle, and that in a game of inches UM got lucky that Akron came up a bit short. But it was a game that both teams had a chance to win, and this time Goliath benefitted from a missed opportunity; history hasn’t always been so kind. I’m certainly not going to complain.
Worst: It’s a Win? (as said in the voice of Ron Burgundy)
Yeah, I’m not going to be one of those people who says it would have been a better “learning experience” if they had lost; I’m a results-based grader so a win is always better than a loss. That said, this is up there with narrowly beating Indiana and Illinois under RR and a turrible 10-7 win against 5-6 Utah in 2002 (a game I attended and apparently blocked from my memory until now). And unlike those games where you could at least point to one element of the performance being a positive, it isn’t really hypoerbole or “ESPN talking head”-ole to say UM was beat in all three phases of the game.
Best: It’s a Win
But it’s a victory for UM, and 3-0 is 3-0. Just ask MSU, whose offense finally eclipsed the defense is scoring 3 games into the season. Teams have bad games, and for all of the hell the players are likely to have rain down on them by the coaching staff this week, it would be immensely worse if Saturday’s game had ended with an “L” on the schedule. This game probably ratchets down the expectations a notch if you saw UM as a top-5 outfit, but otherwise it was a close shave for a team with top-15 talent. Given the number of massive upsets this year, it could have been far worse.
I know the Internet is the ultimate echo chamber for cynicism, and this blog’s particular composition only accentuates that property, but just like was a need to pump the brakes a bit after the ND game, this game doesn’t not necessarily mean you need to stock your panic room quite yet.
Best: I don’t want…your life!
One of the more underrated moments in Varsity Blues is the “hungover” game played by the West Canaan Coyotes after Mox, Tweeder, Billy Bob, Wendell, and Lance spent a night at the Landing Strip Gentleman’s Club*. Hungover and clearly off their game, they lose in embarrassing fashion and Bud Kilmer turns to threatening Mox about his scholarship to Brown if he doesn’t shape up and fall in line.
In no way am I insinuating that UM’s play against Akron was caused by every starter heading off to Deja Vu in Ypsi Thursday night, but it clearly looked like a team that was out of sorts from the outset. UM did force a 3-and-out on Akron’s first drive and followed it up with the long TD by Funchess, but for most of that first half the offense looked lost and the defense held tough but couldn’t generate much of a pass rush. And once the 2nd half began and Akron made some adjustments offensively, the defense struggled to keep them off the field. Plus, Gibbons missed his first kick since Purdue and Matt Wile shanked a couple of punts, resulting in an average of 33 yards per kick despite “booming” one 54 yards. As a couple of people noted (including Ace), if it was against any other team but Akron, UM probably would have been run off the field. But still, just a disorienting performance.
Of course, Notre Dame also had a pretty off performance against Purdue, so who knows where everyone was last night.
* I know this is saying a great deal in a movie where James Van Der Beek is a Texas QB, literally every play is either a bone-shattering tackle or a 50-yard TD (seriously, watch the clip and you’ll see 4-5 NFL Blitz-style flying tackles), and a HS team is allowed to basically coach itself once Jon Voight leaves at halftime – you’ll notice no assistant coaches take over or are even on the screen, but the most unbelievable part of that movie is a HS health teacher moonlighting as a stripper in a city of, oh, 10,000 people in Texas and NOBODY notices until some HS kids see her act. I mean, that club looked packed on (I’m guessing) a weekday night, and early on the movie establishes that Miss Davis must be making decent money from her dancing in order to afford a Mustang convertible, so it is clearly a popular place. Yet her double life remains a mystery both before and after this night. Simply unbelievable.
UM averaged 5.5 ypc* and 8.3 ypa** while holding the Zips to 3.6 ypc*** and 6.3 ypa**** which look good on paper, but as the astute reader might have picked up, those little *’s aren’t just looking for a party to crash; they are massive caveats. First the rushing: Gardner averaged 10.3 ypc on his 103 yards, showcasing the game-breaking speed that can turn a collapsing pocket into a 36 yard TD. Fitz recorded 71 more yards on 19 carries, but didn’t crack 4 ypc against the #80 rushing defense in the country. And while I initially thought he was the recipient of some bad luck out there due to penalties on runs, the only one apparently was a holding penalty by Gallon on a 3-yarder. Of his 19 carries, 7 were for losses and 8 were for minimal gain (though one was the TD). He recorded 65 yards on 4 other carries, and added a nice 27 yard reception to goose the numbers up a bit. On most runs he was engulfed in the backfield or had trouble locating holes either because they weren’t there or a momentary hesitation closed them too quickly. I’ll get into my feelings about the line play later, but this was not a banner day for a guy who has played reasonably well this year given the obvious issues in front of him.
As for that 8.3 ypa, that is .7 ypa below Akron’s 114th-ranked pass defense, and came with a 53% completion perctange and 3 INTs, including a horrible screen-ish pass that was returned for a TD. Nobody other than Gallon caught more than 2 passes, and while Funchess had a nice day on paper with a TD and 65 yards on his two catches, one was a 48-yard TD run that was aided by some poor angles and tackling by Akron, a theme they continued on Chesson’s only catch (and first of his career) on the day, a 33-yard TD where he was pinballed toward the endzone by an Akron defender. Criminally underused Drew Dileo was held without a catch, so hopefully this week Brian will be able to release that particular Kraken.
The defense did marginally better, holding Akron to about their season average rushing and about a yard less passing, but those numbers were put up against UCF and the zombified remains of the 4th President of the United States, er, eponymously-named FCS James Madison University. And Akron had 4 drives longer than 45 yards, including two 11-play drives that ended with a TD and the final drive, as well as a 5-play drive that ended with Wilson’s INT in the endzone. UM could not get Akron off the field in the 4th, including giving up a number of long completions and “they only need 5 yards for the first down, let’s give the slot receiver a 10-yard cushion” plays.
So yeah, statistics should be trusted only as far as they can be thrown, which against UM’s defense today is apparently both quite far and with minimal coverage.
Okay, okay, that’s a little mean. But it was pretty bad out there.
Worst: Push it!
So you know how earlier I mentioned that statistics sometimes lie? Well, a big reason why UM’s running game struggled was the continued inability of the offensive line to consistently block for anyone. Against Akron, Fitz had 15 carries that resulted in either lost yardage or minimal gains, and a significant number of them were because one or more Akron defenders were in the backfield rather quickly. It remains a team that is strong on the edges (though both Lewan and Schofield missed a couple of blocks) and “maturing” or “weak” (depending on your viewpoint) in the middle. Akron didn’t seem like it was doing anything special defensively, yet they always seemed to have the number’s advantage at the point of attack. And while they only recorded a single sack, Gardner was harassed most of the day by the line without excessive use of blitzes or disguised coverages. I’m not expecting major changes on the line next week, but this is a team that can’t consistently get 4-5 yards a pop on the ground without the QB getting involved, and that is not a sustainable situation during the conference season unless Devin remains healthy throughout, which would be a minor miracle.
As for the defensive line, to say the “Right to Rush 4” mantra needs to be redefined would be an understatement. A unit with a decent amount of hype heading into the season failed to register a sack on 49 attempts, though the defense was credited with 8 QB hits. Still, it took an all-out blitz to get pressure on the QB to end the game (reminiscent of the Points-a-Palooza some years back), and when your undersized tackle (Black) is your most consistent pass rusher against a MAC team, that isn’t good news. I guess the jury is still out on Frank Clark, but at this point the judge expects to hear a verdict by the end of lunch. It certainly didn’t help that Mattison seemed reticent about using more than 4 linemen to get pressure, and as a couple of people noted in the Liveblog the stunting was glaringly obvious, but again you shouldn’t have to overly gameplan for a team coming off a 1-11 season.
Best: Times are Changing
Now, I know I just spent a couple of sections dumping on Akron and minimizing their influence on today, but they deserve quite a bit of credit for playing UM to a standstill. Maybe 25-30 years teams like Akron are just happy to be playing in the Big House and are overwhelmed by the moment, but in today’s college football ecosystem everybody believes his team can beat anyone else. For even with Akron’s fallow history, it is still an FBS team with D1 players on it, and given the exposure and resources available to virtually all such programs nobody should be surprised they didn’t just wilt as soon as The Victors played. Terry Bowden may have looked like he ate his daddy Bobby before the game, but he’s still got a career record of 142-75-2 (including 47-17-1 while at Auburn), and certainly knows how to beat teams like UM. They played solid, largely mistake-free football and took advantage of UM’s miscues. They played like a major college football team, and this game should be yet another reminder that “MACrifices” isn’t a reality in today’s football landscape.
Best: Tackling, and the Lack Thereof (part deux)
Last week I mentioned how refreshing it was seeing the other team (in that case, ND) miss some crucial tackles while UM largely wrapped up quickly. Well, count both Funchess’s and Chesson’s TDs as beneficiaries of some dodgy tackling by the Zips. By comparison, UM typically tackled guys at contact, though Jourdan Lewis had a pretty bad “tackle” of Pohl as he rushed for a first down late in the game. There were also the coverage issues with the corners and linebackers, especially in the middle of the field where D’Orazio was seemingly open all day. This definitely felt like a gameplan limitation, at least initially, but it was troubling that late in the game receivers were able to get open in the secondary with players trailing them by 2-3 yards.
Worst: Hitting Reset
Last week I waxed poetically about Gardner being a modern-day unstoppable video game QB, UM’s answer to Michael Vick circa Madden 2004. He was like UTG Trevor Siemian crossed with a mongoose, and it was glorious. Like Vick in the game, it just felt unfair to have him on your team, and to talk about him in front of your vanquished opponent is to welcome scorn and possibly some shoving.
Well, against Akron people saw the other side of the videogame analogy: when the computer “cheats” and everything that could possibly go wrong does. Suddenly, your all-world QB can’t complete a pass except to the other team, your RB can’t get a yard beyond the line of scrimmage, you are getting called for penalties on any positive play, and even digital Texas’s GERG thinks you are playing too soft defensively. By the time a defensive end houses an interception off a screen pass, you’re diving for the reset button while cursing Alan Turing and his stupid face.
Of course, in real life that’s just the third quarter of the game, and you still have to watch and hope that somehow, someway your team figures it all out enough to pull out a victory. Against Akron, Gardner and the offense did just enough in the end for the win, and on a seemingly snakebitten game they can lick their wounds and give it another shot.
Best: Even YMRMFSPA had Bad Games
So the Vince Young analogies have been trotted out for Devin since his game against Northwestern, and with his improvisational skills, strong arm, and galloping strides it is hard not to see a bit of the college star in him. Unfortunately, Gardner also showed the same characteristics that drove Texas fans crazy early on in Young’s career, with 4 turnovers, including a TaINT, and some happy feet that resulted in missed receptions and poor throws. If you check out Young’s gamelog from his first full season, you’ll see the same tantalizing mix of promise and growing pains: 5 TDs against no turnovers against Texas Tech following 8/23 for 86 yards against Oklahoma and 3/9 with 2INTs against Missouri. After those games, people we calling for Chance Mock to play at QB, and if that name doesn’t ring a bell it’s because he didn’t do anything to make people forget about Young. People in A2 forget this because of the game Young had against the Wolverines in the Rose Bowl, but Young finished with a 12:11 ratio on the season and had some tough performances even in wins. The next year he emerged as a breakthrough player and led Texas to the title.
I’m not saying Gardner is going to do that, but this game was a reminder of how fickle and infuriating the maturation process can be at times, and that the same player can have a stinker like today AND a performance against ND without there being anything wrong with him. I suspect he’ll play better next week, but regardless of his performance it won’t change this past game or how the future plays out. Every game is another data point, and sometimes you don’t realize there are outliers until time and distance it provides have given you some perception. Gardner wasn’t a Heisman winner after last week and he’s not a bum after this one, but instead a work in progress like the rest of the team.
I’m wheeling out my extra-tall soapbox now, so if you don’t want to hear my complain about fandom in general and UM followers in particular, feel free to skip to the next section.
What has always driven me crazy about the fandom in sports is the moralizing and dime-store psychoanalysis people place on players’ motivations. A team plays well and people lionize the “heart” shown by the winners while questioning that of the loser. Every down and distance becomes a Greek tragedy played out with a pigskin, and we want to equate higher meaning with 3rd-down conversions and missed blocks. But that’s the thing – it’s just a game, and teams win and lose, players play well or poorly, for reasons that have nothing to do with their moral fiber or ability to “lead” men.
Both during and after the game, there was a contingent of fans who tried to make the game a referendum on these players. They questioned the leadership displayed by Taylor Lewan apparently not getting the line “up” to block, as if Kalis, Miller, and Glasgow would have held their blocks if only they had cared more. Gardner threw INTs not because he made a bad read or had a bit of bad luck, but because he wasn’t a leader out there and his receivers didn’t have confidence in him. And in the postgame, when both Lewan and Gardner said they promised a better effort next week, people on the blog questioned their motives and suggested they had “heard this before” and UM still lost, proving that fans shouldn’t operate heavy machinery following a game because their blindness will undoubtedly cause accidents.
Sports were oftentimes used as stand-ins for battle both in real life as well as in narrative devices; we speak of “warriors of the gridiron” and its bond with iconography of good vs. evil and right vs. wrong is hard to ignore. But in the end, sport is just a game, with winners and losers according to the rules of the contest. To try to derive some greater meaning from it, to look deep into a man’s soul on a 3-yard run at the end of the game and hope to identify his humanity, is a foolish exercise. I know people will continue to act this way long after I’m cold and in the ground, but I still hope that one day sports will be treated as the athletic contests they are, not the day of reckoning some yearn for them to embody.
Best: Quick Hits
A couple of points that aren’t really worth their own sections:
- I thought the secondary played okay, though the middle of the field was open seemingly for days at a time. They also seemed to line up yards off receivers that didn’t seem able to really beat them in a race. And to Akron’s credit, a couple of long receptions were the result of good throws; the one where I believe Taylor was beaten down the sideline in the 4th quarter by Smith was a great throw as much as any failure by the coverage. That said, surprised Lewis got the nod over Stribling out there, especially given the size differences.
- Al Borges called a decent enough game in my opinion, though he seemed afraid of running the veer too much early on even though Akron had no answer. The inability of the line to run block certainly didn’t help; when UM needed yards late in the game they ran directly behind Lewan, which was obviously a positive but not great news for your inside running game.
- I remain puzzled that Hoke did not go for it at 4-and-1 on UM’s 45 early on in the 4th quarter. The numbers say putning is the right call, but one yard with Gardner in the gun seems quite doable. I’m not a big fan of “momentum”, but getting a yard there gives UM a fresh set of downs and doesn’t put the ball on the foot of your admittedly-skittish punter who proceeded to shank the ball anyway. Plus, I believe this was right after Akron nearly blocked the last punt.
- Norfleet appears to have lost return privileges at least on punts, with Dileo back there in the second half. That feels about right; I know Norfleet has shown great potential, but he continues to make the routine catches scary and still doesn’t seem to have a great sense of how to handle returns. And with Dileo back there, it allowed the BTN announcers to talk about how he can run in space. Because if there is one element of Dileo’s game we can ALL agree on, it is his blazing speed in space.
Best: Release the Hounds
The good news is that the UConn Huskies are an absolute tire-fire and UM should be rather motivated heading into the Cabella’s parking lot er Husky Stadium next week. I hope for everyone’s sake it is a short game and next week’s recap is “Best: Everything.”
So I missed most of this game initially; had family over and only saw parts of the 3rd quarter live while the rest was from a DVR re-watch. Thus, I ignored most of the commentary, stopping only to watch Marshall Mathers absolutely trolling Musberger and Herbie in the booth. That was good fun.
One advantage of DVR’ing the game and watching it largely divorced from the in-the-moment fandom gives you a different appreciation for what happened on a per-play basis but, more importantly, the overall game. It gave me a better appreciation of the big-picture elements of the game, even though at times my notes read like an obsessive serial killer - “Gallon, Gallon, GALLON!”
But enough of that; on to the Best and Worst of the Indiana Fig Things
Best: We’re the one without a Goatee
This is the second result from Google Image for “Doppelganger”
Going into this game, one of the major talking points was whether or not UM-ND was a “rivalry”, with Brian Kelly originally seeing it as a regional tilt and then, once he consulted with Grimace, Tinky Winky, and Count Von Count in the only way I presume they know how, he “clarified” that it was a great and historic one. Various people, mostly on the internet where one is duty-bound to correct all falsehoods, chimed in and waged digital battle until everyone exhaustively looked around and realized anyone not associated with either team viewed this as nothing more than the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers arguing over whose pile of money was best for Scrooge McDuck’ing.
It’s this blue-bloodedness that has always separated ND from the rest of UM’s traditional rivals. MSU is the half-brother who always wants to be taken seriously but inevitably shows up to social events slightly drunk with an un-tucked shirt and some “crazy” story about last weekend that inevitably ends with him in handcuffs and urine-soaked pants. OSU has all of the trappings of a worthy adversary, with a veneer of tradition, success, and bright future that is undeniable. Yet, once you dig a bit deeper you realize he holds his 1st-grade “Super Bee” spelling award far too close to this heart and his treasured idols are jerks, crooks, and hypocrites. They might have success and a hatred will always burn true with them, but the nouveau rich odor is hard to shake. PSU, Nebraska, and Wisconsin keep trying to catch your eye and are always ready to throw down, but it feels forced and unstable as they undergo major changes or fail to live up to their own expectations.
Notre Dame, though, has always felt like a perfect foil for UM, and that’s what renders outside perceptions irrelevant. #1 and #3 in all-time wins, #1 and #2 in Win Percentage, and #1 and #1a in ISOS Percentage (Inflated Sense of Self). Both fanbases see themselves as football royalty but with a healthy perception of their team’s current state, which is absolutely true until any additional evidence is provided that contradicts that ideal. We both scoff at meltdowns from fans of other teams yet conveniently ignore our own, constantly question the integrity of other coaches and teams even though both our programs have had issues in the past, and (like all fans) perpetuate the narrative in which our team is always the noble protagonist valiantly overcoming the dark underbelly of the sport. And yes, both UM and ND have been at the forefront at key moments in the sport’s evolution. Yet in the end, we’re just like everyone else except we won a bunch of games back when guys wore leather helmets and the forward pass was an innovation that kept players from killing each other.
So in a way, Notre Dame and Michigan are destined to always be rivals even when they don’t meet on the field; we both strive to obtain the superiority and nonpareil that only one can possess. But at the same time, the institutions are so similar both on and off the field that to truly “hate” the other is nothing more than an exercise of self-flagellation. And yes, this whole section is one shining example; gotta love the hypocrisy.
Best: The Madden Offense lives!
At this point I imagine the Ven diagram of “People who read MGoBlog diaries” and “People who have played computer football” resembles a perfect solar eclipse, so if you only think of John Madden as a character played by Frank Caliendo, I guess just move on to the next section.
For everyone else, though, UM’s offensive playcalling reminded me of those great 16-bit and early PlayStation/XBox/N64 Madden games where they hadn’t quite figured out how to properly balance player attributes when it came to speedy QBs and so you could call a shotgun pass on basically every down with impunity (I know most people consider Michael Vick circa 2001-2004 as the apex mobile QB in video games, but picking the Eagles with Randall Cunningham or the 49ers with Steve Young led to untold fights when I was in junior high). With one of those guys in the backfield, every pass carried the real possibility of a QB run with about a 1% chance that the defense could stop you before 5-6 yards. And on the off chance that you found yourself on 3rd/4th-and-long, just call for a Hail Mary/4 Verts and you could either throw the ball into the tiniest of windows because your QB had a Howitzer or, to be extra dickish, run for the first while juking every LB about 15 times. A mobile QB was about as close to god mode as one could get on the football field.
Well, with Devin Gardner at QB and Borges overjoyed with a QB who isn’t afraid to scramble sensibly (sorry Denard), UM is trotting out the type of offense that seems largely immune to defensive adjustments. Whereas in years past a collapsing pocket was almost immediately followed by a tuck-and-run, Gardner seems more than happy to move around while his WRs work to get open. And if that doesn’t happen quickly enough, or if there are yards available on the ground, Gardner just gallops 2-3 yards a stride and can pick it up efficiently. A couple of times Gardner basically rolled out, outran with ease an ND player barreling down on him from the edge, and calmly surveyed the field looking for an open Gallon, Dileo, Funchess, basically anyone. At least once he just kept running; other times he’d throw for the first. You didn’t often see that type of play last year, or at least run so easily and successfully, and it seems like it will be a staple in UM’s offense going forward until such time as any defense (i.e. MSU and that’s about it) shows the ability to slow it down.
Best: It’s Super Effective
To start the season, UM has had 22 meaningful drives (i.e. not at the end of the half and/or running out the clock). Of those, they’ve scored TDs on 12 of those drives and another 3 have ended with FGs. Four ended with INTs and they punted 3 other times. 15/22 drives have ended with points (and if you want to be snarky, a 16th ended with points for the opposition), and I think most fans would concur that the offense remains a work in progress. The redzone offense was even better, going 4-4 TDs against ND and, outside of an iffy pass interference on the last scoring drive, with relative ease. It’s getting to the point that once UM gets into the endzone, teams might as well let them score and at least conserve the clock.
Gallon was the shiniest of shiny stars along with Gardner, reeling in 3 TDs and 184 yards while consistently abusing anyone Notre Dame put on him. I know he was a little banged up at the end, but it didn’t look too serious and I can only imagine the holy hell these two will drop on teams like UConn and Iowa going forward.
This is the most effective offense I’ve ever seen at UM during the life of my fandom, and it should only improve as the offensive line gels more and Gardner starts to look for receivers other than Gallon and Dileo more consistently. Unfortunately…
Worst: QB Vision Cone still in experimental mode
I’m sure some of this was dictated by defensive alignments inside as well as comfort on the part of Gardner, but Butt and Funchess, those wacky police partners trying to catch criminals on the mean streets of Ann Arbor if they don’t tackle each other first, coming this fall to Fxx, er, accounted for only 36 yards on 5 catches, which follows up on a 3 for 55 game against CMU that was goosed considerably by Funchess’s 36-yard scamper. They are young and should improve as the season comes along (especially Butt, who appeared to drop and/or run out of position for a couple of balls), but Gardner’s passing cone seems a bit skewed toward Dileo and Gallon and that could very well catch up to him as teams adjust or, knock on wood, one of them gets hurt. For as much as I love the idea of this team’s leading receivers both being eligible for the Pomeroy Award, that would feel like a massive waste of talent at other positions on the field and, frankly, counter-productive to this team’s maturation this year and beyond.
As ST3 noted in the always-excellent Inside the Boxscore, the running game was surprisingly competent, posting 166 yards and 11 first downs against an extremely active and talented (if young at LB) Notre Dame front 7. While Gardner’s legs remained a key player in the ground game, Fitz’s consistent inside running and ability to eke out positive yards at the edges is a major reason why this offense remains so dangerous despite less-than-spectacular numbers on the stat sheet.
I know some people like to joke about “Manball” as 3 yards and a cloud of dust, but to me it has always meant establishing the threat of a running game at least in name, if not in production, so as to open the playbook and keep the opposition off-balance. It’s why people smarter than me become giddy when Kalis and Glasgow successfully pull on a 5-yard run on 1st down, or Fitz is able to run around Lewan’s block on Shempo for the first. It’s about drawing a line here, and saying only your guys shall go further.
What makes this type of manball different than Iowa’s, for example, is that the playcalling followed suit, with Gardner throwing more in shorter yardage situations and even on first down when ND’s LBs started to cheat up. If the mantra of the defensive line is the Right to Rush 4, then Fitz deserves to wear an “Earning Those 4” shirt every day. He’s seemingly come all the way back from that horrible day against Iowa, and he’s a major catalyst for this team’s hot start.
Best: Tackling, and the Lack Thereof
If you didn’t have some weird flashbacks of GERG’s defenses during Gallon’s triple-bounce TD rumble in the first quarter, you are either 4 years old or have repressed those memories until such time as you need to punch aliens. After years of seeing missed arm tackles turning into long TDs, it was refreshing to watch UM put on a veritable tackling clinic against Notre Dame. Even on completed passes, Countess or Taylor was a half-step away and tackling almost immediately, and in the 4th quarter I remember at least one WR screen being blown up by a hard-charging Taylor (?) running through the block to hit the receiver immediately. The LBs and safeties kept everything in front of them and limited yards after contact. Rees finished with 314 yards and 2 TDs, but it took 51 attempts and he only averaged 6.1 ypa along with 2 INTs. He dinked-and-dunked his way down the fields at time (his long completion was only 23 yards), but even his completions were into small windows that his receivers had to earn. Jones, Niklas, and Daniels are dangerous skill-position players, and it felt like the secondary played them to a stand-still.
The defense remains a work-in-progress, and it still feels like a year or two away from truly disruptive, but against a ND offense with some real blue-chip players offensively they more than held their own. I think every UM fan will count that as a win.
Worst: Missing the Firestarter
This probably doesn’t need repeating, but Jake MF Ryan’s presence is sorely missed on this team when it comes to putting pressure on opposing QBs. It’s been two games, and while the CMU numbers weren’t as bad as I originally thought, I remain skeptical that the front four will be able to consistently generate a pass rush against a competent line. Mattison’s defense only sacked Rees once, hit him another time, and only infrequently made him uncomfortable throwing the ball; when they did, it either ended with a poor throw or one of his two INTs. With 51 attempts, including a large number when ND was clearly going to pass, you’d expect much more presence by a defense that seems best suited for pining its ears back and delay-blitzing the crap out of you.
With Ryan back I presume some of those blitzes will hit home, and that should open up rushing lanes for the likes of Clark. Luckily there doesn’t appear to be another team coming up before Ryan’s return that should pose much of a threat passing the ball (MAC! Big East!, 1/4 Big Ten!), but this remains the one noticeable deficiency in an otherwise-stout defensive unit.
Best: Michigan Speed!!!
Just something I loved – on a stretch play early in the first quarter, ND’s RB (I think it was Carlisle) kept trying to string out the play toward the sideline; each time he took a step toward the line, though, another UM player was there to drive him back. The athleticism on the defensive side of the ball, while objectively not much different than during the 90’s/00’s heyday, still feels warp-speed compared to those RR defenses that couldn’t hold the edge to save their lives. Part is probably coaching and positioning, but this defense just flashes to the ball the way good defenses are supposed to, and it is a sight to watch.
Best: Give Him All the Women
Brendan Gibbons was 2/2 this game, breaking the consecutive FG record previously held by Remy Hamilton. if Mattison has the Heininger Certainty Principle, then somebody needs to figure out what Hoke did to Brendan and call it the Gibbons Kicking Catalyst. I know kicking is notoriously wonky and unpredictable, but from 1/5 to the record book is amazing. And Matt Wile deserves continued kudos for booming kickoffs into the end zones as needed.
Worst: Obligatory Wrestling Reference
I’m really not trying to make this a common theme, but it just feels right in this context. As always, feel free to skip this section if you don’t care about professional wrestling.
One of the common tropes in professional wrestling history is to exaggerated ethnicity and treat it as “character” for a grappler. That’s why for years you had evil Kozlovs, the “Polish Hammer” Ivan Putski, dozens of Samoans, the Mexicools (with real riding lawnmower!), Junkyard Dogs, and every other horrible stereotype you can think of perpetrated . While there is undoubtedly a racist component to it, a major reason promoters highlight a wrestler’s ethnicity is because it eliminates the need for nuance and “plays” to everyone regardless of their viewpoint; you boo or cheer because you are told to associate some characteristic with good or bad guys regardless of who they actually are; the man is basically just laundry.
For obvious reasons, this characterization has become less common in recent years, as even the most generic of wrestlers are at least given a chance to be more than their last name or nation of origin. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they must turn their back completely on their heritage; in fact, many of them incorporate parts into their persona. The most prominent example I can think of in recent years is Sheamus, an Irish-born grappler with a red shock of hair, alabaster skin, and pun-approved move names like the Brogue Kick, the High Cross, and the Irish Curse backbreaker. Outside of the ring he has a delightful Irish accent, seems to have a reasonable sense of humor, and can carry himself on the talk show circuit like a champ. In so many ways, he should be loved.
But here’s the thing; if you aren’t a little kid, you probably think Sheamus is kind of a dick. His attempts at humor you mind grating, especially when they inevitably take on sophomoric qualities such as stealing a Mexican aristocrat’s car, eating Mexican food in it, and then pooping in it. He’s rather predictable in the ring, and while the higher-ups tried pushing him as a main-eventer, that fizzled out when people realized he just wasn’t that compelling a figure. He’s kind of a relic of a bygone era, and decades ago probably would have been one of the biggest draws in the Northeast and Midwest.
Notre Dame is the Sheamus of college football, and it’s not just because of the obvious Irish connection. Both seem like they should be a bigger deal than they are, and despite WWE/OWMiM’s (Old White Men in Media’s) attempts to convince us otherwise, that connection to the past isn’t strong enough to ignore the mediocrity of the present. And, I guess, both retain the possibility for rebirth with the proper tweaking; Notre Dame under Kelly look to be returning to at least national competitiveness, and Sheamus is probably a new entrance song and catch phrase from main-eventing a PPV. But right now, the luck of the Irish isn’t smiling on her favored sons.
Best: The Signs!
You guys posted some great ones and it was fun to see them IRL. My two favorite remain “Play like your girlfriend’s are real today” and “Where was the ‘Luck of the Irish’ during the potato famine?” I can only imagine what we’ll see next week with Alabama and A&M.
This will be a bit of an abbreviated post because, well, 59-9 tells a pretty compelling story. Sure, I will try to tease out some larger trends from the game, but the biggest takeaway is that UM destroyed a MAC team in the way you expect the winningest program in college football history to do so, and nobody really seemed that surprised. Given the relative struggles the past half-dozen years, that’s the biggest Best I can point out.
Best: The least sexy 59 points you’ll ever see
As Brian noted in his “Five Questions, Five Answers” preview, the Al Borges offense we’re going to see is not the spread that was trotted out under RR and limped along until the end of the Denard era. While I take issue with the “wrong side of history” supposition of this decision, I agree with Brian that Borges’s offense will remain dynamic and creative enough that the ghost of Mike Debord will stay in his comically 90’s room for the foreseeable future.
That’s like, totally your opinion
But 52 points were scored by this offense without much in the way of trickeration or going for 2 points on the first two TDs, you twerp. It was an efficient, dominant performance with wrinkles here and there but also a consistent scheme that was frankly missing during the Transition. As Ace noted there are questions about the line, but Kalis MANBALLED a couple of guys and held up well; I expect Miller to struggle at times but should improve with more reps to at least competent. This offense will undoubtedly struggle at times when teams are able to collapse the inside of the line, and the WRs need to create more separation than they did today, but overall it felt like the type of performance one expected from this unit. It should be the best in the conference unless OSU figures out how to block people, and even then I think the plethora of backs and TEs will continue to keep Devin reasonably clean and away from too many hits running the ball.
Best: Who needs redshirts?
The usual suspects played – Morris, Smith, and Green on offense; Charlton and Thomas on defense. Not unexpected burning men like Gedeon, Butt, and Stribling also suited up, and while I’m a little annoyed if Gedeon only plays on special teams this year, you have to think the coaches like what he brings on defense to push him into a more prominent role. Lewis is a bit of a head scratcher, but Norfleet had some troubles early on with returns and Lewis is a shifty guy in space. But overall, I’m not a fan of redshirting except when the guy in question really wouldn’t help you (i.e. most linemen, small-ish WRs, anybody in the secondary unless they are unbelievable), and basically everyone who played acquitted himself well enough to warrant more playing time in some capacity.
So yeah, the defense looked REALLY fast out there. Thomas on the punt block practically yanked the ball out of the punter’s hands, and throughout the game CMU players were hit as soon as they touched the ball. Early on it seemed like Countess was playing off the WRs too much, but then every time the ball was sent their way he stuck the receiver almost immediately. Other than one or two plays toward the end, the secondary kept everyone in front of them and rarely did you see much separation. Under Hoke, it sometimes felt like Mattison and co. had to gameplan teams into spots to compensate for a lack of athleticism at certain positions; at least after today it looks like those limitations are disappearing quickly. It isn’t quite LSU/Alabama speedsters out there quite yet, but this is another check in the “good recruiting” checklist for this staff.
Worst: We can’t have nice things
Listen, I’m as neurotic and cynical as the next guy when it comes to sports, but at some point it just gets old. I will admit to being a bit down about the early play calling and will remain a Borges questioner until such time as I learn how college offenses work, but at some point the liveblog became one big bit*hing session+ once it was clear UM was going to run away with the game. All of a sudden you have people questioning Derrick Green’s ability to run through contact, Frank Clark’s inability to get to the QB (I will admit to being in this group initially), and every non-TD run or non-intercepted completion as proof that some component of the team wasn’t “working” or was a point of concern. The hive mind of the liveblogs can adopt misguided stances and I get that it shouldn’t be taken seriously, but the team just scored 59 points against a bowl team, held them to a couple of field goal attempts with 3(!) of 14 drives longer than 30 yards, and averaged 5.1 yards per carry and 10.5 yards per attempt. They played pretty well folks; let’s enjoy the win for at least a day before we all try to Gladwell our way through trends from one game.
+ I never understand *’ing out the vowel in a cuss word. I think we all know that “f*ck” doesn’t refer to one-time Tiger’s first basemen Robert Fick, yet everyone apparently thinks removing the ‘i’ in sh*t is going to throw everyone off the scent. Either blot out the whole word or leave it alone. /HOTSPORTSTAKE
Had 106 yards on 4 returns, and was a couple of broken tackles away from housing at least 1 of those returns. He also recorded 38 yards on his one run, and overall looked like a dynamic component of the offense. He’ll never be an every-down back and I doubt he’ll reach the heights of Breaston (who seemingly was both faster a bit more elusive in small spaces), but he gives this team a legitimate return man for the first time since, I don’t know, McGuffie, and the type of guy who can take those once-a-game Ronald Bellomy WR runs and make them work because the other team can’t immediately assume that’s why he’s on the field.
Worst: Out of Nowhere!
Fair warning: this section is going to be one big wrestling analogy. Since I was around 6 years old, I’ve been a huge fan of professional wrestling. I watch it on television, Hulu, and Youtube every chance I can. I once rented every Wrestlemania (9 of them at the time) and watched them straight, without blinking, and probably lost a gallon of water with the drool that fell from my mouth. I loved Jake Roberts and Damien so much I cried when Earthquake “squished” him during their feud. I was a little Hulkster, then a member of the Warrior nation, followed by a heartbroken Rocker fan (seeing Shawn kick Marty Jannetty and throw him through the barbershop window taught me to never trust anyone in a leather jacket). I was a fan of the Dangerous Alliance and marked out so hard when Stunning Steve became Stone Cold and ushered in the Attitude Era along with DX, the Rock and Sock Connection, Kurt Angle, and washed-up MMA guys like Tank Abbott and Ken Shamrock. Hogan creating the NWO with Kevin Nash and Scott Hall set the world on fire for a bit, and Goldberg speared anyone with a pulse into next Tuesday. TLC wasn’t a way to treat a lady or a TV channel with weird shows about future diabetes sufferers; it was a brutal contest with enough splintered tables and broken limbs to remind you how fragile the human body is. Innovators like Chris Jericho and Rey Mysterio showed you little guys could rise to the top, and Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit shed the “Vanilla Midgets” label to become champions even though their careers ended suddenly (and in Benoit’s case, horribly). Even with the relatively fallow period that followed Brock Lesnar’s departure to NFL training camps and, ultimately, the UFC, I still enjoyed watching Batista, JBL, Orton, John Cena, and the rest soldier on. And with the ascension of “Indy” guys likes CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, plus the healthy growth of the development system and the indy feds like ROH, PWG, CZW, and the like, it is a good time to be a fan.
Over this time, I’ve seen the medium evolve and grow, and mostly for the better. Guys train harder and take better care of their bodies, match quality is higher, and storytelling has evolved to the point where major sports blogs have writers dedicated to covering it. It isn’t necessarily still real to me, but I definitely see it maintaining a place in my sports life going forward.
One change I have noticed over the years, though, is the proliferation of “spontaneous” in-ring moments and moves that you just didn’t see back in the 80’s and early 90’s. It used to be when a guy was going to hit his “finisher”, he had some setup – Hogan gave you the big boot before running the ropes and dropping the leg; Ric Flair gave you the knee breaker and then actually had to lock in the figure-four; and even “quick hitters” like the Ultimate Warrior and Shawn Michaels still had some setup before they finished you off with their splash or superkick. But around the time Austin hit the scene, guys started in with the reversals and the quick finishers; Stunners to everyone, Diamond Cutters off chokeslams, Tombstones off cross bodies and Sweet Chin Musics off jumping attacks. Now every move was “out of nowhere”, culminating in Randy Orton RKO’ing literally everybody off ever-more convoluted triple-lindys. As Brandon Stroud of With Leather always laments, guys just need to stop jumping around Orton and they’ll win all the time.
So what’s my point? Well, one of the things that has changed about following college sports is that because of the multitude of mediums covering the games, you really aren’t “surprised” by anything before the teams step on the field. Sure, Gordon being suspended for the first game was relatively unknown, but even then there was a board post on the topic two hours before the game. I knew the vast majority of the depth chart weeks before it was released, heard the insider buzz about certain players stepping up while others floundered, and even knew the basic structure of the offense and defense, including quite a few wrinkles, despite the best attempts by the Fort to keep them under wraps. On one hand it makes fandom more engrossing and “fun” because my knowledge is more thorough and nuanced, but the “Christmas morning” feel of watching the team line up that first game is lost a bit when you’ve already read about the N64 and Easy-Bake oven in the nondescript box three weeks ago. And with all that information, expectations can explode to unreasonable levels; witness the post above with people complaining about the young running backs.
The inexorable march of progress is such that we’ll only get more insider information and in-depth analyses of players and recruits, and on the whole that is a positive for both fans and the game. To be a well-rounded fan, you need to read and keep up on your teams to an almost-unhealthy degree; otherwise you are basically Skip Bayless or Lou Holtz without the clothing budget. About the only time you can ever be surprised anymore is when you….
Best: Play the Game
For despite all of the predictions and charts, the acronyms and the tomes written about the game, nobody knows will happen during the game until the teams actually line up. Fitz looked great out there, making cuts and accelerating through holes opened up be a much-improved offensive line. Devin looked shaky earlier but played well in the end, accounting for over 200 yards in about 2.5 quarters of work. Morris, Green, and Smith all had their turns out there and showed promise. the depth on defense, previously a figment of the fevered imagination of our benevolent overlord, showed up in spades. Countess looked like the corner everyone expected last year before he was hurt, while Thomas, Wilson, Stribling, Morgan, Ross, and Gordon all stepped into more prominent roles and played well (I recognize Wilson blew at least one assignment). Even guys like Clark, whom I’m more down on than others, played reasonably well. I know it’s one game, but it was nice to be surprised by guys actually playing football in a game that mattered.
Worst: Big Ten!
Oh where to start. MSU struggled to move the ball against the other, other directional school last night, and no amount of BTN spit-shining will change that. As noted earlier, OSU went for 2 twice because (a) Meyer wanted to make a point, and (b) that point is that he is a *ick. And even with all of that early success, a 4-8 Buffalo team was touch-and-go with the #2 team in the country, at home, for most of the game. Illinois looked competent against Southern Illinois but still only won by 8, Cincy pounded Purdue by 35 as perennial Most Awesome Name candidate Munchie Legaux stood tall in the pocket. PSU held on against Syracuse but looked like it will be years until the effects of those sanctions allow them to regain their stronger position in the conference, and Wiscy ran over UMass like they always do against overmatched squads who are lactose intolerant. At least they can run the ball with James White. Oh yeah, and Iowa lost to NIU because of course they would. At time of this post teams like NW and Nebraska are still playing, but I doubt we’ll learn much about either team win or lose (though if they lose to Wyoming and/or Cal, I’m going to book my tickets for Indy tomorrow).
But overall, it was not a banner weekend for the conference. The Big 10 isn’t great at football outside of the top couple of teams; that’s been an annoying reality for a couple of years now. The conference isn’t dying or falling behind anyone not named the SEC, but the Big 2, Little 10 mantra is gaining traction every day, and I’m not seeing much evidence down the pipeline that it will change any time soon.
Best: UTL II
Hey, it might be fun…
What amazes me about this site is the amount of content posted during the dead of summer, when people should be, you know, outside and not worrying about the nickelback (NTN)* on passing downs. Mind you, I say this with 100% absolute love and appreciation, as it really makes those bathroom br…er, interminable time between seasons a bit more bearable. The only problem, if you’d call it that, is that with such great, consistent diarists like Mathlete, Six Zero, Seth, CRex, and LSAClassOf2000 (and I’m sure to be missing others, so my apologies in advance), it makes it tough for people without advanced knowledge of mathematics, drawing skills, or hilarious fish-out-of-water tales to think of anything useful to post. Luckily, I’m here to post random thoughts on football without any of those messy facts, charts, or thoughtful analysis that bogs down everyone else. But I will definitely make consistent references to late 80’s/early 90’s pop culture, because nothing draws eyeballs like Battletoads puns.
And let it be known that I have yet to receive my copy of HTTV (available now for ordering if you are a horrible person who didn’t love Brian enough to sponsor his Kickstarter because you spent all of your money on funding a Deathstar), so if anything happens to overlap that is purely coincidental. So no need for a spoiler alert, but perhaps a didn’t-mean-to-tap-into-the-hivemind-alert. Also, this is not exhaustive – I don’t have the knowledge of football that other writers here possess, so me saying “Lewan is really good and Mattison knows how to coach” isn’t going to be ground-breaking; I’m going for a “key points” approach here. So without further ado, I bring you a preseason Best and Worst for Michigan (and college in general) football in 2013.
* I’m not a fan of all Nickelback songs, but that is one awesome movie tie-in song!
Best: Finally the focus is on actual football
While it is undeniable that college sports drive a multi-billion-dollar industry (but don’t tell EA that), the actual seasons for football and basketball are about 4 months each, with only a bit of overlap. So after the first week of January and/or the first week of April, the “official” engine driving the gravy train for network and cable television, websites, merchandisers, etc. shuts down for about 8 months. Unfortunately, there are still 24 hours a day that need to be filled with something, whether it be talking heads arguing over “issues” and obscure hypotheticals, former athletes pontificating on the need to have “played the game” to really understand why throwing on 3rd-and-12 is the right call, or scanning the police blotter in every college town to see if the Ven diagram of college kids getting drunk and/or fighting and college football/basketball players intersects.
So when the football season ends, the focus immediately turns to NSD, wherein a bunch of grown men’s and women’s emotions wax and wane according to the whims of high-schoolers participating in very weird hat dances.
|One of these is awesome, one is insanely awesome, and one is Denard rocking a great look.|
March is dominated by commercials for Southwest Airlines and Capital One credit cards with a dusting of basketball sprinkled in, and just when that madness ends, we get inundated with draft combine reports and the respective NBA and NFL drafts. And as the weather gets warmer, you finally think “self, what else can they report about? Kids are not even in school; at most they will be some puff pieces about charity work and new coaches getting used to a particular school.” But no, you are instead bombarded with stories about kids slacking off, whether or not a former coach is somehow partially responsible for a suspected murderer because the Program actually happens IRL, and old men talking about “big changes” that will only make things more convoluted and disjointed as sports go full Voltron with super-conferences and paychecks.
I guess my point is that in a few short weeks, fans of college football will actually be able to celebrate the sport itself, even if the depressing accoutrement isn’t going anywhere. Those recruits will now be in the lineup (or at least at practice), the returning players will be settling into their roles, and all of the coach-speak/playbook prognostications/expectations will manifest themselves in an actual product on the field. The silly season is over; bring on the games.
Worst: Addition + Subtraction != Reality
One of the common refrains I’ve read recently about the upcoming season is the old “addition by subtraction” on offense as Gardner takes over for Robinson at QB. As the thinking goes, the loss of Robinson and his career 10,776 yards of offense will be mitigated by Devin’s superior throwing ability and a more balanced, Al Borges-friendly offensive system.
This phrase has always driven me crazy, if for no other reason than football doesn’t work like math. A football team is comprised of innumerable players, coaches, opponents, etc.; we’re talking thousands of meaningful variables. Change one and you might have a major effect on the system, but the far more likely outcome is that nothing demonstrably happens or, worse, the output is worse. And it’s this last scenario that really scares me about losing Denard and installing Devin at QB full-time.
Just because you’ll be able to shove a slightly less misshapen peg into an ever-changing hole doesn’t mean the entire enterprise, or even a component like the offense, will function better a year later. Other than Jeremy Gallon’s mountain goat imitation and The Threat keeping the chains moving, the passing attack is long on potential and short on real results (I believe Funchess will have a solid year catching the ball, but when you can’t block at UM you aren’t going to be on the field much). Fitz’s recovery sounds promising but will he be the guy who ran for 5.6 ypc in 2011 or struggled to break 4 in 2012? I don’t know, and while there is guru-approved talent in the backfield (Green and Smith) and is a position where young talent can flourish, nobody with shoelaces has been able to consistently gain yardage on the ground for years now. And while in years past defenses had to respect the ability of UM’s QB/RB/WR/braided decoy to bust a massive run, Devin isn’t that type of player and defenses will treat him (and by extension this offense) accordingly.
Of course, Devin isn’t the perfect Al Borges QB either, but in theory he’ll be better able to throw downfield accurately and COMPLETELY IGNORE ANY TYPE OF SCREEN PASSES, amongst other things. Call me skeptical, but I still see this offense living and dying with the line giving whoever lines up at RB the time and space necessary to get into the second level. Protecting Devin will definitely help as well, but he’s enough of an athlete to buy himself some time on obvious passing downs if necessary; limiting the number of times he lines needing 8+ yards for a first because they tried this twice would be great.
|Unleashing the dragon is not officially endorsed by Al Borges, but he’s not officially against it either.|
Best: The Flying V
One of my favorite movies growing up was D2: The Mighty Ducks, the sequel to, I don’t know, the Joshua Jackson vehicle The Mighty Ducks. It’s 100% crap if you watch it critically; rampant product placement, jingoism and mindless flag-waving up the wazoo, and the most lax enforcement of international junior hockey rules known to man (seriously, the team adds players to the squad midway through the tournament by signing them up after a street hockey game). But by gawd, 13-year-old me loved this movie so much, and mostly because the creators pulled the comic book staple of expanding the Might Ducks universe by introducing new characters with exactly one “secret/mutant” power/character trait. Now you had the super-tough guy Dean to team up with Fulton (himself mostly known for his rocket shot) to make the Bash Brothers. Julie “The Cat”, with her lightning-quick reflexes, could even defend the previously-unstoppable triple deke. Luis Mendoza was the fastest guy the ice had ever seen, but couldn’t stop to save his life. And I guess to fill out the roster they added a cowboy (Dwayne) and the aforementioned street hockey star Russ (more on him later).
So why does this matter? Well, for a couple of years now, the RB situation at UM always left like a cut-rate casting of the Ducks, with guys trying to fill in the “power”, “speed”, “every down”, etc. roles but with limited success. They played hard and, at times, could fill in their roles admirably, but it should trouble people that even with Fitz’s decent 2011 season and barely playing his first year, Denard accounted for 42% of the team’s total rushing yards during his career. In virtually every circumstance, he was the best/only real option to move the ball on the ground, whether it be in short-yardage, designed first-down runs, even catching out of the backfield toward the end of last season.
This year, it feels like the situation will be improved if for no other reason than the talent in the backfield is significantly better than in years past. Even coming back from injury I expect Toussaint to be better than he was last season, and if he can’t line up full-time in the backfield is still a great change-of-pace back with (I hope) the elusiveness and phone-booth shiftiness everyone saw a couple of years ago. Green and Smith were some of the top RB recruits in the nation last year, and both look capable of running the ball 20-25 times a game if needed. Shallman and Kerridge should be able to provide some power in short yardage (I guess Rawls could improve here as well but who knows) and, in Shallman’s case, maybe a bit more in the open field. Guys like Hayes and Johnson look like situational backs who could move into the slot in certain formations and cause issues against LBs and Safeties. And to both make Brian happy as well as wedge in the reference that drove me to shoehorn the RB situation into this horrible analogy, Norfleet is the ultimate Knuckle-puck and a player I expect will help immensely in the return game if nothing else.
Getting yards on the ground still relies immensely on the guards and center blocking FAR better than they did last year, but it finally feels like the backfield could whip out a flying V of talent.
Worst: Where’d the “Gimmick” Go?
With Denard gone and Devin and co. clearly moving toward a more “classic” offense philosophy, I’m having to come to grips with the fact that the atypical elements of this team are rapidly disappearing. It always drove me crazy when people would call the spread option a “gimmick” offense, because last time I checked the goal was to score points as frequently as possible by maximizing your strengths and exploiting the weaknesses of your opponent. It wasn’t THAT long ago that people viewed the forward pass as (at best) a fad and (at worst) an affront to the game that killed 18 people and injured 100s, and even the multiple-receiving TE craze of recent years was scoffed at when it was first introduced. It’s an offense that clearly works in college, and the flexibility it gave in terms of play-calling helped make UM stand out a bit compared to the Big Ten-ness of offenses at outfits like Iowa, Wisconsin, and MSU.
While Al Borges’s offense looks to move the ball far better than other teams in the conference and should feature a fair number of wrinkles, the designed QB runs, unpredictable formations, and Worst Waldo Ever are probably relics of the past.
Worst: Stupid Elephant
Even though UM won’t be seeing Purdue until 2017 doesn’t mean that the Boilermakers couldn’t dramatically affect UM’s season as they unleashed Perry, clumsiness elephant in the world upon Jake Ryan and his precious ligaments. Though it sounds like he’ll be back in time for most of the conference slate, he’ll likely just be getting his conditioning and game-speed bearings when the meat of the schedule (@MSU, Nebraska, @NW, @Iowa, OSU) kicks in. Mattison Uber Alles and all that, but its going to be interesting to see how this defense responds without their leading tackler (88 total tackles) and pressure generator (team-leading 4.5 sacks). Let’s hope the hype around Clark, Ojemudia, and Washington is for real, because that line is going to have to generate a significantly better pass rush. You can only blitz so many times before good offenses figure out how to exploit those holes, and UM’s corners simply aren’t experienced/good enough right now to play on islands (though I do think they’ll be good).
And an aside: having recently had a birthday and solidly entering my early 30’s, I am definitely feeling my age when it comes to minor injuries. Whereas in years past running a couple extra miles or tweaking a muscle lifting took all of a day to recover from, now I’m limping around like I’ve got shrapnel in my ankle if I don’t stretch 10 minutes before jogging. So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that 20-something-year-olds can bounce back from these injuries in record-breaking time. It just blows my mind that Ryan will see the field 7 months after this injury. Heck, when Timmy’s Dad came back from his ACL injury and was a reasonable approximation of the player he was before, people thought it was a miracle.
You Decide: The (Near) End of an Era
I apologize to the mother of the equine that is about to be bludgeoned again, but we are rapidly nearing the end of the Rodriguez regime’s influence on Michigan football. While RR coached his last game on the UM sideline on January 1, 2011, the long tail from recruiting, player development, and (minor) cultural impact is still affecting Hoke’s regime years later. That’s the thing about coaching changes; the head guy may leave his office in a single day, but the fallout from his time at the helm literally remains for years. And we all know how it feels when a guy just lingers.
(* Full Disclosure: I remain a staunch believer that RR’s tenure at UM could have turned out quite differently if a handful of about eleventy billion things had gone differently. Your mileage with him will likely vary, but the guy who recruited Lewan, Denard, Gardner, Fitz, Ryan, etc. and obliterated a number of school records – admittedly both good and bad – could have worked in Ann Arbor.)
While we have seen some players from his regime leave in the past, the transition from last year’s squad to this year really feels like the first natural “purge” of RR’s most prominent players. The kids who left in 2013 were the first full RR class to matriculate, the kids who signed up after the 3-9 season and survived immense negative karma that welcomed them to campus, Stretchgate, the losing seasons, the Process, and, finally, some redemption.
The two names that I suspect stick out for most MGoBloggers are Denard and Kovacs; the Alpha and Omega that embodied the dichotomy and extreme variance that was a hallmark of the Rodriguez years.* Denard was the scintillating maestro of an offense that could be maddening for fans and opponents alike. At his peak, Denard was the most exciting player Michigan had fielded in a generation; his two transcendent games against ND rank up there with Biakabutuka against OSU, Braylon’s new Math, Chris Perry’s marathon versus MSU, Mercury Hayes leading the comeback against UVa, and a slew of performances by Woodson, Wheatley, and Hart. His flaws were well-documented (mediocre passer, injured, the sometimes-victim of being the best option on every play), but when he was on he gave fans the feeling of having the “ringer” in a game; of having the guy who was so much better than everyone else that it didn’t seem fair.
If Denard was the quintessential spread QB recruit, Jordan Kovacs epitomized the other mythos of Rich Rodriguez: gritty walk-on makes good. Sure, if you read his Wikipedia page the story feels incredibly predictable, but at the time I doubt anyone expected the kid with a single preferred walk-on offer at Toledo (yes, that Toledo) would become a team MVP and leave this program as one of the better safeties in its history. He just made plays, and I’ll admit that my testicles will probably retract a bit the first time someone goes deep on Michigan this year. I suspect Gordon will slide in adequately enough, but you don’t replace a mult-time conference award winner easily, regardless of the story told in getting him on the field.
This season will only accelerate the exodus of The Last Guy’s recruits, and while I am exceedingly happy about The Current Guy’s performance, it is still a bit sad to see some of the standard-bearers of this important era in Michigan’s history move on.
* You could also make a case for BWC, the biggest “can’t miss” prospect that flamed out under RR and only recovered under the steady hand of Hoke and Co. Because if there was a third defining element to the RR era, it was big-name prospects (Tate, Cullen, Cissoko, etc.) failing to live up to expectations.
Best: The Gap is Shortening
Of all the systemic and natural advantages certain programs have – coaching stability, location, tradition, money, SEC-ness – probably the most important to sustained success is player development & talent replenishment. The reason programs like Alabama, LSU, Stanford, Oregon, OSU, etc. have been successful recently is that the depth charts usually remain pretty flush with talent year over year. Sure, you’ll see holes pop up here and there as recruits flame out or unexpected attrition occur, but for the most part good teams stay that way because when you graduate one all-conference performer there’s usually a guy or two behind him to fill in those shoes.
If you take a look at the unofficial depth chart, you’ll notice there’s this massive wall of players for 2016 and 2017 crumbling to a handful of 2013 starters and regular contributors. This drop is less precarious on the defensive side than the offense, which makes sense given the coaching staff’s composition and their early focus when they took over, but it highlights the “blue-bloods”/“first-world problems” meme you see thrown around with consistently-great teams that, once upon a time, included UM.
A common refrain you hear from programs like Texas, OSU, UM, Alabama, OU, Oregon, etc. is that if they aren’t winning the conference and playing for the MNC/major bowl game, the season is a “disappointment” even if they win 9+ games. This inevitably drives other, less consistently successful teams crazy because it reeks of entitlement and a sense of superiority. While that is probably a part of it, the bigger reason is that these teams know they are so superior in talent compared to most of their competition that the band of variance for their season is relatively narrow; they’ll rarely lose more than 2-3 games a season because they probably only play 3-4 teams with comparable talent a year. Even with the odd upset, they’re not worried about making a bowl game or having a winning record unless something cataclysmic happens. Because they have depth, the natural ebb and flow from injuries and departures year-to-year is muted; the whole “we don’t rebuild, we just reload” refrain. That was never true under RR (I get into the lasting influence of his tenure below), and the later Carr years had their fair share of talent gaps that culminated in the Horror and the aftermath.
Hoke is obviously doing a great job replenishing the cupboard with top-notch talent, and I suspect that in a year or two the expectations for UM will return to their lofty heights. But if anyone thinks that there won’t be quite a few true/RS freshmen playing meaningful minutes this year, you’re going to be surprised. 8-5 is just as likely as 11-2 despite the seeming upward trajectory of the team in recent years.
Best: And in a Hurry!
This is a late addition given the events of the BBQ, but by gawd Hoke is doing work when it comes to skill position players, which was the last “real” concern people had regarding his recruiting acumen. In hindsight, his early focus on linemen and depth makes sense since a Denard-led offense should be able to score a reasonable number of points to hide many deficiencies on that side of the ball. But having already picked up some of the best RBs and WRs in last year’s class, he wasted no time grabbing some of the best WR, RB, and DB players early on for 2015. This won’t totally mitigate that gap between upperclassmen and the rest of the depth chart, but Hoke and co. are going to do their best to eradicate that issue with overwhelming force.
Best: We want people to pass?
After living through the weekly carpet-bombing by 5x Heisman Trophy winners like Ben Chappell, Scott Tolzien, and Chris Relf, the last thing I’d thought I’d be saying a couple years later is that the secondary looks like, if not a strength, at least an adequate part of the defense this year and one of the strengths of the team going forward. Taylor impressed me as the chief replacement for Countess after his own ACL injury (damn you Perry!), and veterans like Avery and camp surprise Hollowell should help fill in the gaps and limit the reliance on the younger talent. There definitely isn’t a Woodson, Hall, or Jackson in the backfield, but the corners should be able to stick with enough receivers on the schedule that teams will have to at least earn those long completions.
Best/Worst: Come On B1G
It has been discussed on this board many times before, but looking around the conference I’m not seeing any teams poised to make the leap up in competition. On one hand this should make UM fans happy; the Big 2, Little 10 situation pumps up the win totals. At the same time, when the third best team is either an in-transition Wiscy, a sanctioned PSU, or a meh MSU, it doesn’t speak highly of the strength of the conference and how it will be perceived when bowl selection and rankings roll around. I expect MSU’s defense to be one of the stronger units in the nation and for Wiscy and NW to continue to exceed their talent level, but you’d hope that “better than expected” wouldn’t be the ceiling for over half the teams in the conference.
So that’s it. Comment away below if you got this far, and tell me where I screwed up. I’m sure I did somewhere. John Navarre’s still the QB, right? Go Blue!
So yeah, this has actually been in the works for a couple of weeks, but being the superstitious person that I apparently am when it comes to sports, I held off posting while UM kept plowing through the best teams in the country. As a result, I’ve had to completely junk sections (e.g. talking about Burke’s chances at national POY honors, lack of compelling storylines) while fleshing out others (e.g. horrible refereeing, announcers with agendas, 3-point shooting as a sustainable offensive strategy) with more information. And maybe the wounds are still too raw and fresh, but this post will be my little catharsis after going through the emotional wringer.
Best: Thank you!
This post may get a little melancholy, so up front I want to say “Thank you” to the team, the coaches, to everyone for a great season. When I caught UM in NYC just before Thanksgiving, I hadn’t seen them play in person in over a decade. But not 5 minutes into that game, I couldn’t get over how much fun it was to watch them. They played the game “the right way”, but not in the cliche way old men use it to refer to a figment of their faded memories, but in the way good basketball should be. It has been an amazing run all year, and will be a tale I tell my kids years from now when they are staring at their iPad 7s at dinner and ignoring me.
This team was fun to watch, and as a fan that is the best complement you can give a team.
Not to go all SEC and make everything about football, but does everyone remember how depressing the 2008 Michigan football season was? The team went 3-9 and wasn’t even that good, and the bowl streak ended, the team was trounced by mid-level MAC teams and freaking Illinois, and everyone was bummed? And this stink, this cloud of despair, didn’t really start to leave until Brady Hoke showed up and the team beat OSU and won the Sugar Bowl?
Well, the conventional wisdom during 2008 was that most Michigan fans had never experienced such a profound sense of national irrelevance, let alone the tangible results of a losing season, in their lifetimes, that they didn’t know how to handle it. They had expectations, and those finally did not mesh with reality. As a result, they lacked the copping mechanisms other fanbases built up over time, of seeing your best efforts end in missed bowl games and losing streaks to rivals. You get used to the teases, the down years, the unknown trials and tribulations that put pencils in your hands during preseason prognosticating when you really want pens. You can’t assume anything, which maybe makes the lows more ominous but also makes the highs that much sweeter.
People will say that UM basketball entered this circle of Hell when Steve Fisher walked out those doors, bodies sticking out from beneath the various rugs and buses strewn about Crisler. But that always felt like an easy-to-locate marker than an actual timestamp, the “official” end of an era for narrative purposes. To me, the beginning of this sports purgatory was that 1993 National Championship game. Until that point, Michigan had seemingly been on a perpetual rise. The title in 1989 felt slightly unexpected at the time but, in hindsight, kind of made sense given the talent on the team. They followed that win up with another solid season, one admittedly down year in 1991, and then the rise of the Fab Five. For a solid 5-year stretch, everything was coming up Michigan.
But then UM lost to North Carolina, and the magic was gone like that. In hindsight, it would have been gone regardless of the outcome, because expectations had been ratcheted up to unsustainable levels as soon as Chris, Jalen, Juwan, Jimmy, and Ray pulled up their black socks. 1989 was the title, but 1993 gave people the license to expect a title, and this pivot is what turns fans from 1980 US Hockey fans to 1980 USSR Hockey fans.
Duke fans feel like this, same with UNC, Kansas, IU and MSU. You want to just love your team for what it is now, but you can’t completely ignore what they were and what they should be. And that taints your view a bit; you are relieved when they squeak by a 5 seed in the second round of the NCAA tournament because it means another trip to the Sweet 16, and it leaves the possibility open for a run to the Elite 8 and to the Final Four. You feel a release not of happiness but of pressure, vicariously living through wins and loses the way you always say you won’t but inevitably ends with you screaming at the television in front of mixed company.
I guess my point is that regardless of how Monday turned out, UM basketball has returned to national relevance, and that is amazing for fans like me who tried to talk himself in Maceo Baston and Louis Bullock as saviors of the Maize and Blue cagers. John Beilein has proven to be a dynamic offensive mind and a very shrewd recruiter, who can meld teams into his image and overcome many of the deficiencies found in the college game. Even with the expected turnover, people will expect UM basketball to be back in the conference and national title hunts most years, like a national power should be. At the same time, though, the feelings of these past 4 weeks will probably never be there again, or if they are they’ll be tinged with a dread you can’t quite shake. The cloud over UM basketball has finally lifted; it may just be replaced with a far less oppressive one.
Worst: You can take the referees out of the Big 10, but you can’t take the Big 10 out of the referees
Now, I could complain about the officiating in that title game as much as anyone, but it was emblematic of a trend in college basketball that has been going on for years. Whether it be due to the byzantine and obtuse rulebook and its inconsistent enforcement, the speed and development of the players, or simply a drop in overall quality, the officiating of major college basketball has been immensely underwhelming. Offensive players are either treated as Faberge Eggs with the ball (and any impediment of their travel to the hoop treated as a class-2 misdemeanor), or running backs in the worst Oklahoma drill in the world. Defensive players seemingly have no idea what qualifies as a foul or not, so they just throw their bodies around and get handsie like they’re at the Gold Club until they hear a whistle. Blatant calls are missed while game-clock differences of .2s result in 20-minute private screenings of computer monitors.
Since players started to go directly to the NBA with little or no time spent in college, people have offered this up as evidence as to why the college game has suffered both aesthetically as well as in results. And while it is true that the overall talent of squads has been diminished, the quality of the games has been affected at least as much by the degradation of the officiating. Or maybe that’s not the right term; the enforcement of rules has become so murky that referees seemingly are making them up as they go along, creating the disjointed and error-riddled product we’ve seen for over a decade.*
And while I love complain about it as much as the next guy, I don’t think refs “pick” a team or storyline and skew the game in that direction. They don’t get paid by the outcome, and despite Tim Donaghy’s claims, I don’t think most horrible calls are part of some insidious plan to defraud the betting public. But this whole season has been a parade of poor officiating in every conference, highlighted by a B1G season in which mauling a player or punching him in the Hoosiers barely registers. UM benefitted from these calls at times, especially during the tourney, but the fact that even the CBS announcers were calling out the poor calls during the game is an indictment of the “professionals” who are supposed to be keeping the game clean for the kids playing it.
*And I’ll add that it’s not like the NBA game is some bastion of beautiful play either. People point at Heat-Thunder and act like the rest of the season plays out like that. As someone who watches Pistons-Bobcats and Timberwolves-New Orleans, lots of games are downright unbearable.
Best: Player of the year != Dickie V's/NBA Draft Express's Ranking
This was one of those sections that was in an earlier draft, before Trey Burke pulled a Triple H and took every relevant POY award for himself. But whatever, it is still relevant. I know I sound like a cranky old man and/or Skip Bayless, but it feels like the POY award criteria has devolved the past 15-20 years from "who is the best player in the country based on a spectrum of elements, including team success, boxscore stats, and quality of competition" to a big switch statement:
case "ESPN likes him";
case "Plays for Duke":
case "White guy with funny hair and/or 'tries hard'":
case "NBA teams will draft him high":
case "Plays for 'big-name' team:
case "Guy who plays basketball well":
I'm not saying this is a full-proof algorithm, but there is a trend, if you will.
But what makes his sweep so great is that he backed it up on the court in different ways, like a true player of the year should. Outside of the second halves against Kansas and Louisville, Burke could never find his rhythm shooting, so he turned on the ball-hawking defense and facilitated McGary and the shooters. He made his team better, and when they needed him to start scoring he usually did. Even in defeat, he scored 24 points in basically a half of basketball, and probably would have had more had two horrible foul calls (Hancock’s three and his block on Siva) not been made. And he did it without the top-notch supporting cast that you sometimes see at places like UNC, Duke, and Kentucky, where multiple lottery picks are peaking at the same time. Simply stated – he put his team in a position to win every game, and it was refreshing to see a POY do that in big games.
Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I’m expecting McGary, GRIII, and Stauskas to return next year. Burke will be leaving and I expect Hardaway to be gone as well, but overall this team should have some talented players returning to supplement the Irvin and Walton joining the fold next year. It will be interesting to see how the young frontcourt players respond to an offense without a POY feeding them the ball at the best places possible, but I also have faith that they will make the necessary improvements to be leader-types next season. In particular, the rebounding ceiling of this team should rise dramatically, if for no other reason than a year in the weight room (not sure if they’ll have time to be in the community) will bulk up McGary and Robinson to the point they can bang with other post presences in the conference. And while I’m not expecting Spike to replace Burke’s production or leadership, he has proven himself to be a steady enough hand (and Beilein a great molder of PGs) to be a suitable replacement next year. The team will look quite a bit different, but a dramatic fall doesn’t seem likely.
Worst: Draft Speculation
Ugh. Every year, as soon as the confetti has been swept off the court in whatever gawd-awful football stadium the NCAA selected to screw up their championship environment, the attention turns to which players will/should be declaring for the NBA draft. Until recently, of course, UM never had to worry about it. Sure, Jamal Crawford declared early and that stunk, but the NCAA seemed hell-bent on making sure he’d never play a college game again, so that wasn’t a surprise. Manny Harris and Darius Morris were slight surprises but nothing shocking, especially given the clear ceilings in their games.
But the talk surrounding GRIII and McGary seems different, in that it epitomizes the “upside-idation” of pro basketball right now. It’s no longer enough to just be a competent player who needs to improve and mature; now everyone looks at a kid and guesses how he’ll look in 2-3 years, with more muscle, better shooting and different coaching, and then tries to figure out if he’s worth a draft pick. I think both of these players will get drafted in the NBA when they finally leave, but I’ve seen nothing this season to make me believe they can be even a fringe-rotation player on a decent NBA team next season. That doesn’t seem like a smart investment for either kid to leave UM, but I’m sure the next couple of weeks will be filled with dread.
Best: Likeable Players
This is probably more a blurb than a real thought, but it was refreshing to watch a Final Four in which none of the teams featured an outwardly-villainous player. That means, no Marshall Henderson’s, no Derrick Nix’s, not even an Evan Turner-type who doesn’t do anything outwardly horrible but just seems like a jerk on the court. Maybe Triche at Syracuse, but I don’t remember people hating on him like other players in years past. I certainly wasn’t crazy about Luke Hancock as a player against UM, but him being good at basketball (and being bailed out by questionable officiating) aren’t really character flaws to the degree that old Shark Boy from Ole Miss is.
Worst: Injured Players != Special Powers
I’m sure this will be unpopular to some, but the Kevin Ware situation drove me crazy not because of the way the Louisville players responded to it, but how everyone else with a buck in the game tried to exploit it for their own gain. Shirts were made so that Adidas could make a couple more bucks, blogs flooded their site with GIFs and videos to drive traffic while joining in the faux-outrage circle jerk, proponents of paying college players held it up as a shining example of why players need to be financially compensated, and the WWL/media amplified coverage to 11 in order to push the narrative that a kid’s horrific injury meant something more than horrible luck. In short, it was what you’d expect from modern sports culture.
But the real travesty is that Ware’s injury had very little to do with, you know, basketball. He was a good player for the Cards, but they obviously were able to weather his loss on the court reasonably well. Those kids were obviously hurt and pained by watching one of their friends and teammates suffer a horrible injury, but the narrative pushed that they were going to play “hard for Kevin” completely dismisses the reality that these kids were in the Elite 8 and playing for a f’ing national title already. Their next loss would likely be the end of many of their college careers. They had enough motivation.
Yet, to listen to pundits you’d think Louisville needed to sacrifice Ware’s tibia and fibula to the Basketball Gods in order to overcome Duke, WSU, and UM. To cheapen what happened into some motivational plot device devalues the real pain and suffering that occurred. Louisville won and lost because of how they played on the court, and while I’m sure they were happy that Kevin Ware was able to watch them win the national title, I find it hard to believe that their motivation to win a title was supplemented in a meaningful way by his injury.
Worst: Looking for answers
After a loss, people always look for explanations, some fact or trend that explains how one team emerged victorious while another left in defeat. And in some games, perhaps there is a clear example – poor shooting, rebounding, defense, etc. Maybe the other team his 50% of its threes, or forced 25 TOs. But over time, you start to see that perhaps teams lose and win because, in a one-game playoff, anything can happen. UM was a mediocre rebounding unit all year, and that continued into the postseason (35.1 TREB in the regular season, 36 TREB in the tourney). They shot about 71% on FTs in the regular season, and not much worse in the tourney. The defense gambled with outside shooting all year and it usually worked out, except when it didn’t and they were blitzed by teams like IU and MSU. Nothing much changed this postseason except for the fact that UM cruised past VCU and Florida in ways that people didn’t expect. They squeezed out a win against a Kansas team that seemingly every year underperforms a bit. Syracuse was a nail-biter to the end, and Louisville could have turned on a couple of plays. UM’s profile didn’t change that much, except that when they went on those 3-pointer binges the other team usually failed to respond.
My point is that UM lost because someone had to, just like SDSU, VCU, Kansas, Florida, and Syracuse. Yes, talent tends to win out over time and that’s why regular seasons matter in terms of seeding, but the best and worst thing about the tourney is that every game feels like its own little SimCity, and sometimes the power reactor is going great, the streets are clean, and the taxes are high, and other times, well…
Best: Next Year
As much as I complained about the dangers of expectations, it is also fun to realize that for the first time in, I don’t know, decades, UM football and basketball seem to be both on the rise. I’m sure when one of these teams flames out early in the tourney I’ll feel differently, but it’s currently April 9th and everyone is still talking about UM basketball and not pining for the spring game so that we can all speculate on who’s going to be the starting right tackle. That’s pretty awesome.