I did not make this headline up
I hope you saved some space on your plate for these #HOTTAKES.
Worst: Cue Up Morrissey
I'll get this right out up front; I am not nearly as down about this game as seems to be the general consensus. I'm a bit of an optimist at heart, but a 34-10 win where UM more than doubled the yardage of the opposition (while holding them under 200 total yards) and never being seriously challenged save for a random 5-minute spurt in the 2nd quarter in which everything that could go wrong did just doesn't get my blood boiling. Yes, the team looked out-of-sorts at times, and obviously this isn't one for the Gardner archives, but reading my Facebook feed and the comments on the internet, you'd think UM had just lost to MAC teams like so many conference brethren.
I do think there is a subset of the fanbase that must disabuse itself of the notion that Michigan can just impose its will on teams and the opponents will oblige by pulling their collective tails beneath them and scurrying away. The announcers of the game (who I thought did an immensely better job than last we heard BTN announcer/bitter OSU WR Joey Galloway and Beth "EMPhasis on the wrong syLLAble" Moowins) mentioned a couple of times that Miami wasn't "afraid" or in awe of UM. Now, maybe Angola was taken aback by the mere presence of the Dream Team in 1992, but a D1 team comprised of players from the same region should absolutely feel like it can compete, especially when the opposition is giving away possessions and clearly not at the top of its game for stretches of the contest. I know I'm harping on a seemingly-meaningless point, but the part of the Michigan internet echo chamber that drives me most crazy is the chicken little mentality that has existed for decades (and yes, this existed well before 2007). It wasn't pretty all the time, and there are definitely lingering issues (i.e. clock management at the end of halves, Gardner's skittishness and WR lock-on, coverages issues in the secondary), but this team looks light-years ahead of where it was last year in its third game against Akron, where they gave up 418 yards and needed a last-second stop at home. Michigan largely dominated an overmatched team saved for a string of bad luck in the 2nd quarter, and attempts to make it more meaningful or representative of the rest of the season feels like a fool's errand.
Best: Apparently They Listened
Last week I said that I thought it would behoove the coaching staff to pick one of the two key backs and give him the bulk of the carries for a game or two just to build some cohesiveness and see if Green or Smith could be the "feature" back in this offense. Well, after some chatter this week that Smith was seen gingerly walking around campus, Derrick Green was given 27 carries this game and turned in a pretty solid performance, averaging 6.2 ypc and 2 TDs. That average is both impressive (his long was only 27 yards, so it wasn't goosed by some massive run through the secondary) and a bit troubling (you kinda hoped the former #1 RB recruit could have broken a big run against a turrible Miami defense), but overall Green looked better as the game progressed and made some nice cuts and reads throughout the day, including what I believe was his long run where he went left then cut back right to burst through a massive hole on the backside of the play. Perhaps most promising was the fact that he ran thru contact far better than in the past, falling forward and getting those couple of extra yards good backs should always eek out. While I understand the value of multiple backs being interchangeable parts in the rushing attack, it does seem to help when a back can get into the flow of the game and run multiples series without being swapped in and out. While I'd still love for either Green or Smith to have that extra speed element that can turn some of these 10+ yard runs into 50+ yard TD runs, at this stage the rushing attack looks lightyears better than it did last year, when TFLs were abundant (only 2 this game, for a total of 3 yards) even against the dregs on the schedule (Akron had 7 for 21 yards).
Meh: Chaotic Neutral Devin Gardner
Gardner had an average performance, one that probably was a bit worse than I'm making it out to be (his mechanics seemed out of whack at times and a couple of his throws, including the INT, were a result of locking onto the WR and not setting his feet in the pocket) but also one not nearly as bad as the Russell Bellomy Special people are making it out to be. Coming on the heels of last week's second-half horror show, it was a bit disheartening to see Gardner throw another bad INT on a pass that led to Chesson getting sandwiched between two Redhawks. Also, and this is somewhat hard to tell from the sideline camera angle, but it felt like Gardner sensed breakdowns in the pocket that weren't there, leading him to scramble around and make off-balance throws where stepping up or shifting position slightly would have been sufficient. But unlike in years past, he halted the scuttling in the second half, and that wide-open TD to Butt that really broke the game open and settled everyone down. I saw some people complain that Gardner nearly blew that wide-open pass, but that type of throw actually seems harder than it looks precisely because of how open Butt was; as a QB, you are conditioned to expect a certain level of coverage on your receivers, and when a guy is that blindingly wide open it seems to catch lots of QBs by surprise and takes them a moment to adjust.
Overall, Gardner's numbers were fine (14+ yards per completion, 2 TDs, running when appropriate) and he seems to have found another weapon in Darboh that will help complement Funchess when he gets back. It was a workman-like performance, and coming off last week's game it was a welcome return.
Worst: ChadTomDrewJohnJimDenard HenneBradyHensonNavarreHarbaughRobinson Jr. Ain't Walking Through That Door
You always hear that the best position on a team is the backup to the "leader", whether it be QB, goalie, PG, etc. While the starter plays every game and exposes his failings on a daily basis, the platonic ideal of that player tends to manifest themselves in the form of the backup, who rarely sees the field and thus does nothing to dispel the notion that he would be superior to the incumbent even though in most circumstances, you know, he would probably be the starter if he actually was better.
Now, Gardner's problem isn't most people thinking Shane Morris should be the starter; beyond the "give reps to the future" camp, I haven't seen many people arguing Morris is better than Gardner right now at QB. What I do see, in veiled references and wistful posts, is the idea that Gardner is somehow demonstrably worse than those QBs who came before him, that if you put any of a dozen former QBs in his spot they would be world-beaters. To me, this mindset is the combination of whitewashing the past while stubbornly ignoring the realities of the present that you typically only see when you talk to Baby Boomers.
Look at Tom Brady's college stats, then remember he had future NFL Offensive ROY Anthony Thomas as the feature back, throwing to future 1st rounder NFL pick David Terrell and 3rd-rounder Marquise Walker, and was protected by All Big Tens Jon Jansen and Steven Hutchinson, with Hutch being one of the best 2-3 guards in the history of the program. Henne always had Hart and a cadre of NFL-quality WRs to throw to, from Braylon to Manningham and Breaston, and had future #1 overall tackle Jake Long covering his backside every year.
My point isn't to disparage the past accomplishments of players; Drew Henson could have been a transcendent star at UM if he had stuck around, and guys like Jim Harbaugh played in a different era but were absolutely deserving of the accolades they received. But they weren't world-beaters, and virtually all of them played on better teams, with better supporting casts and far more coherent offensive philosophies and coaching stability, than Devin Gardner. And they all had their flaws; guys like Henne and Navarre were notorious for locking onto their safety blankets (usually Braylon or Walker) and willing the ball to them, coverage be damned. Most QBs do that at various points in their careers, and anyone who has watched an NFL game with Calvin Johnson, Randy Moss, etc. in the lineup knows that this behavior isn't confined to the college game. Brady emerged somewhat as a senior, but he seemed like the definition of a game manager throughout his career, with his last game against Alabama being so memorable because of how against-type it was compared to the rest of his career.
Barring an epic turnaround, Gardner won't go down in Michigan lore as one of the great ones; not enough record-breaking runs like Denard, too strong a perception that he throws interceptions and misses receivers be respected as a passer. And games like this one do nothing to dispel these notions, but that's an issue more for the viewer than the realities of Devin Gardner's tenure at QB for Michigan. He's a good QB who probably won't ever be great, and that's fine; you have to go pretty far back in the history books before you'd find someone who would fit that designation at UM. But the constant strawmen he's compared to, and the needless nit-picking that seems to follow his every performance, is both an unnecessary exercise in rabble-rousing and a disservice to a pretty good player.
Best: Depth at Wide Receiver or
Worst: Is That Depth Only Interchangeable?
It was great to see guys like Darboh, Chesson, and even a brief appearance by Canteen get some focus in a passing attack that still seems to be figuring out what to do with the players available. Darboh clearly established himself as the starter across from Funchess, and he looked sufficiently athletic enough to punish teams who single-cover him, at least with the ball in his hands (that first fumble was due as much to ball security as a good tackle by Miami). Chesson couldn't pull in a gorgeous pass from Morris in the endzone when the MU corner swiped his arm, and he was the intended receiver who got crunched on Devin's tipped INT, but he his holding off some decent players for his spot and is also contributing on special teams. Norfleet didn't catch a pass but had a great kickoff return to start the game and his 21-yard run on 1st down in the 3rd quarter gave Michigan great field position that they ultimately squandered. Even Jungle Beats got in on the action, and looked like he could be a playmaker as the season progresses.
At the same time, it was a bit disheartening to see the passing offense remain a bit stagnant, at least in terms of downfield threats. Darboh averaged a shade over 14.5 yards per catch, and that included a 26-yarder that featured quite a bit yac tacked onto a short slant/crossing route. The longest completion of the day was on Butt's TD, which required absolutely every Miami player to not keep their eyes on a big Butt as it passed them by.
Given how the offense seems adverse to throwing downfield consistently even when Funchess is available, my inclination is not that Michigan has a bunch of possession receivers but that they aren't being asked to stretch the field. So far Nussmeier seems content to take a couple shots down the field a game but mostly focus on getting the ball out to his playmakers and asking them to make yardage after the catch, highlighted by the multiple WR screens and quick outs we've seen for three weeks now. Hopefully as the season progresses we'll see a more diverse passing attack, but at least so far it does look like UM has playmakers outside, in the slot, and at TE.
Best: The Charmeleon'ing of the Offensive Line
I was a bit too old for the whole Pokemon craze, but having two younger brothers and playing a fair bit of Super Smash Brothers I was exposed to enough of the mythos to make this reference kinda work. The Pokemon creatures, both as a homage to the growth patterns of many inspects as well as a shameless money grab to force fans to purchase ever-more "intense" versions of the same basic character, "evolve" as they gain more experience in battles and, I guess, in life. So like a mild-manner turtle named Squirtle can become the weaponized Blastoise simply be practicing and becoming more attuned to its skills and abilities, it feels like the offensive line is becoming more proficient and cohesive every week. Yes there were breakdowns, but the running game didn't get overly bogged down after some early struggles, and as noted earlier it felt like Gardner's scrambles were as much a response to phantom pains from past rib-crushings than Miami consistently getting pressure. As always, competency is the end-goal this year, and this unit is going to struggle against some of the better lines on the schedule, but this felt like another battle won by the line, and every week they are gaining the experience necessary to take the next step in its evolution.
I'm sure the rush defense is going to struggle at some point this year, but its been three weeks in a row now where opposing offenses are getting absolutely stoned running the ball. Excising the one 1 sack by Beyer, Michigan held Miami to 46 yards on 23 carries, or a very tidy 2.0 ypc. The longest run of the day was an 8-yard scramble by Andrew Hendrix, and at no point did Miami seem capable of getting a consistent push against the front 7. Both Bolden and Ryan looked more comfortable out there, though it still feels like Ryan is wasted in the middle given his disruptive abilities as a pass rusher, and Thomas was in to snuff out some runs as well. It continues to be a bit troubling that the team isn't recording buckets of TFLs, but its a minor quibble considering Miami had a total of 8 first downs all day, and most of those came on their two short-field scoring drives.
Best: All Those Penalties
One of those underrated stats that "smart" football minds used to lord over was the number of pass interference flags certain WRs would accumulate over the season. The logic is that a PI is at least as good as a completion; it typically means the defender had to bail out on whatever he normally does and resort to cheating to stop a long completion from occurring. Certain receivers tended to draw those flags more than others, and identifying them and their disruptive tendencies helped both defense as well as the offense because you could design plays that would isolate those players against corners and try to draw flags at key moments.
The corollary on the defensive line should probably be the false start, especially at the tackle spots. When you have a great pass rusher, your tackles know they need to get whatever jump they can in order to compensate, and as a result they'll try to "cheat" on quick counts to get that extra half-step before contact. In this game, it seemed that the Miami line was so worried about guys like Clark, Henry, and Beyer that they had 4 false starts plus one delay of game that immediately followed the first false start. Though they only recorded the one Beyer sack, Clark was consistently putting pressure on Hendrix, and had the line kept containment on a few plays they probably would have record 2-3 more sacks (one play in particular seemingly featured the entire line chasing Hendrix as he fled the pocket; you probably don't want to see that on a 4-man rush). It feels like the sacks are going to be there at the end of the year, and in this game the disruptiveness along that line just manifested itself in all the laundry being thrown by the refs.
Worst: Holding's Still a Thing, Right?
Each team was called for one hold in this game, with Michigan's coming on the last, meaningless drive. That seems about 100 short considering how overmatched Miami's line looked at times and how frequently a UM defender was thisclose to dragging down Hendrix or tackling a back behind the line, only to see that player escape for a minimal gain or throw the ball away. There is undoubtedly some bias in this view, but it felt like after the flurry of self-inflicted wounds by Miami to start the game, the referees seemed to let up a bit. Listen, just because Miami is screwing up before the play doesn't mean they aren't equally dumb during the play. It's the same mentality that led to the "press coverage or die" popularized by MSU and the Seahawks; nobody wants to call a penalty on every play, so accept some bad calls for the overall success rate you get by grabbing and holding. It didn't really matter in the end, but it was annoying to watch in real time.
Meh: The Secondary
I've never sat in on coaching meetings nor do I know the exact formations being taught by the coaching staff, but watching the game it felt like the corners were still struggling with the intricacies of the coverages being called. A number of times there were Miami receivers in the gaps between 2-3 Michigan defenders, with a corner trailing behind and a LB twisting around, trying to locate the ball. On one of those Bolden made a nice 1-handed deflection that probably would have been a nice reception without it, and an early 3rd-and-14 pass to Rokeem Williams was open between 4 Michigan defenders that Hendrix just underthrew. Again, some of these "mistakes" could have been designs of the defense that Miami simply countered; even bad teams can get you in a bad formation or find a hole in the coverage. And the defense was still down Taylor and Peppers was getting his first sustained time on the field, so some growing pains are to be expected. But I agree with Brian that the secondary still seems to be getting the intricacies of the defensive scheme down, which is usually a big enough problem if it wasn't also compounded by having the coach learning it for the first time as well.
Worst: Clock Management and Coaching or
Worst-er: Bitching about Clock Management and Coaching
Everyone complained about the slowest 4-minute drill to end the first half, and the decision to punt at the Miami 37 after a delay of game on 4th-and-1 were cringe-worthy, but I'm comfortably numb at this point to these brain farts with Michigan football, and would argue that this stuff happens to every team from time to time. Yes, great teams usually don't waste oodles of time in a close game huddling and then running clocking-killing runs from midfield, but Michigan is so far away from being a "great" team that "not screwing this up and getting somebody killed" beats out "throwing it for a pick-6 because your first-year WR runs the wrong pattern" even if the latter probably nets you more points over time.
I know fans want this team to be less derpy about clock management, but for better or for worse this is how Michigan has played for decades now. At some point you'd hope that the coaching staff pushes the envelope a bit and picks up the pace, but at the same time all coaching staffs have their blind spots, and when UM is back to consistently winning 10-11 games a year I'll start worrying about these wasted opportunities. It's probably a bit defeatist and unproductive, but no more so than the weekly complaints about it.
Best: One of These is Not Like the Others
Though the NCAA.com hasn't updated the stats for the week thus far, it is safe to assume that Michigan has one of the weirder profiles in college football. They sport one of the top defenses overall, especially against the run, and have a decent rushing attack (top 30-ish) and an emerging passing game. The kicking game is a little meh, but it isn't an atrocity either to the scale it was under RR. Michigan has outscored its opponents 117 to 55, and that is with the potential outlier of ND's 31-0 whatever that was. And yet, the team has a turnover margin of -7, with only some of that explained by poor ball security or bad throws. I know Michigan has been snakebitten in the turnover department for years now (save 2011), but it feels like that will have to rectify itself, especially given how strong the defense has looked overall. Provided the running game isn't a mirage and the line continues its solid play, that should take some pressure off Gardner and thus allow him to pass under less duress, and at some point you have to think Clark, Ryan, etc. will start creating turnovers in droves. Heck, Lewis's INT was a result of Hendrix being under pressure and throwing a floater up short. This team probably deserves to still be 2-1, and with a bit more luck, who knows?
Best: Cradle of Fandom
Usually during rivalry weeks around these parts, people talk about how they came to be a fan of the Wolverines. Many of the stories features tales of family members taking them to games as youths, or plopping down in front of the TV and catching a big game on national TV, or being inducted into the Michigan family before they even opened their eyes.
Me, I came to be a Michigan football fan by a more circuitous, or at least a less conventional, route.
Growing, my sport was basketball. Loved watching it, loved playing it, everything about the hardwood interested me. My favorite book was a compendium of the 50 best basketball players based on whatever criteria that ended up with Kendall Gill and just-out-of-college Christian Laettner.
|I'm as surprised as you are, Christian.|
Hell, I even bought Bill Laimbeer's Combat Basketball, even though I played it for about 5 minutes total. Now, I wasn't conventionally "good" at playing the game of basketball, but it remains one of the few competitive sports that comes with both single-player and multi-player compatibility out of the box; you can shoot alone on your driveway or join a pickup game seamlessly. My father's first passion was basketball, and some of my fondest memories involved playing horse with him as he taught me the hook shot and how to square my shoulders when taking a jumpshot. And growing up in the shadow of the Fab 5 era cemented my love for the game, though weirdly not for the University. Sure I loved the fact that my local college team was winning games with flair and had future pros up and down the roster, but you could have switched them with Central and I wouldn't have batted an eye.
Football was a different beast for me; while I had briefly played it as a youngster, it just didn't stick. My dad had attended Michigan and would watch the bowl games and the major rivalries on TV, but it wasn't a religious experience for him the way it seemed for other families. So it wasn't until 1995 when I attended my first UM football game, with my friend and his father, against the Miami (NTM) RedHawks. And as weird as it is to say nearly two decades later, that was when I probably became a true Michigan fan.
It was one of those beautiful fall days you always remember every football Saturday being even though most probably weren't. I had never been to Ann Arbor, so the hour-plus drive from Royal Oak, MI was a blur of highways and weird farm country. We parked a couple blocks off State Street (probably off Packard, but who knows) and walked down beautiful tree-lined streets to Hoover, then into the stadium. It seems like most Michigan fans have their first stadium experience in one of two ways; as small children taken by family, where everything is overwhelming and you don't really grasp it at the time, or as (relatively) jaded college freshmen who are impressed but have enough life experience and have many other things on their mind (e.g. getting acclimated to college life, classes, parties, etc.) that the full impact of the surroundings is muted.
Well, and this will sound like hyperbole, that was the moment I figured out I wanted to go to the University of Michigan. It's simplistic and over the years I obviously learned more about the school and how it fit into my future plans, but that day, sitting in those stands watching UM put away a plucky Redhawks team that felt eerily like this game (UM was never truly threatened, but that Miami team was pretty good at 8-2-1 and certainly had enough playmakers to keep up), I became enchanted with the football team, the stadium, the school, and everything that encapsulated. And that team UM finished with 4 losses, part of a 4-year streak in which the Wolverines finished with 4 losses each year, that ended in 1997.
I guess the reason I shared this story is that for all the complaining and consternation people around here have about the "direction" of the program, marketing efforts, ticket pricing and attendance, and all the other minutiae that occupies the days between gameday, it helps to remember that for lots of people, the magic isn't gone and the experience of being in that stadium on a crisp fall day is one that can have profound influence on their lives. Hell, the reason I was even there was probably because Miami was a "poor" opponent and tickets were readily available; earlier that year the 100k attendance record nearly ended when Memphis showed up. I'm not saying yesterday's game will lead to someone adopting the Wolverines as the University as his/her own, but part of me hopes that another generation of fans does.
Best: Bring on the Utes
It's fashionable to talk about Utah being a dangerous team, and I'll admit that Dres Anderson (who is one of my college football fantasy WRs) looks pretty good so far this year. But the two teams they have beaten are a combined 1-5, with that one win being Idaho St.'s "not as close as the score indicates but still not a good sign when the other team doesn't even have a logo on ESPN" win over Chadron St. The Utes have had a week to prepare, but Michigan will be a massive step up in talent compared to Utah's schedule so far, and while last year's Utah team upset Stanford and lost a nailbitter to ASU last year, it was otherwise handled pretty handily by the good teams on its schedule and only had a 7-point win over BYU on the road. It will be a tougher test that UM probably wanted when they scheduled this game years ago, but it also feels like a good barometer for the team's potential this season. I expect Utah to be able to move the ball at times, but Wilson is no Golson and if Michigan can cut down on the inexplicable turnovers, I think they'll emerge with a win.
This is going to be short and a bit low on jokes and links. I was at a wedding this weekend so had to watch the game on DVR late Sunday, but "this sucked to watch and I have better things to do than feel like crap for free" is also high on the list of reasons.
Oh, you want more? Fine.
Worst: Everything, but in a video
Best (Kinda): The First Half
I know you're sitting there saying, "BronxBlue, you picked a bad week to start crystal meth" if you think being down 21-0 constitutes a "good" half. But honestly, UM didn't play THAT badly, at least offensively. It became apparent pretty quickly that the offensive line's (relative) domination displayed against App. St. wasn't going to be reproduced against a more stout defense, but Gardner and co. seemed to compensate reasonably well. They only had one 3-and-out among 4 meaningful first-half drives, and two of those drives ended in long-but-makable FGs (it looked like the second miss was due in large part to Wile's plant foot sliding out on the turf). The other drive stalled when Gardner tried to pull back his throw as Miller was being driven back into him by Sheldon Day, resulting in a 17-yard "fumble" recovery that pinned UM deep in their own territory. UM led ND at the half in rushing, and while the pocket wasn't great, it held up enough that Gardner wasn't running for his life and was accurate and on-point with his throws and decision-making. It wasn't pretty, but it felt like an offense that was making some progress despite glaring issues up front.
As for the defense, feelingsball kicked in for me that first half. Objectively, giving up 21 points without a truly short field is pretty bad, and at times it felt like there were breakdowns at every level. At the same time, they were down Morgan before the game started, Taylor and Peppers after the opening drive, and still had question marks like Ryan out there. On ND's first TD drive, Lewis was called for two PIs that kept the drive alive, and while there was clearly contact and he could have turned his head a bit quicker, it's also the type of aggressive behavior that teams tend to get away with when not in South Bend. I mean, MSU was PI'ed to death last year when they played the Irish, and Notre Dame was equally as handsy on defense without incurring the wrath of the referees. Later on, ND nearly bumbled away a punt return deep in their own territory when the ND returner tried to, I don't know, catch the ball between his legs, only to be saved by Michigan trotting out the "old school" punt formation that leads to 1 gunner trying to beat two blockers AND tackle a returner who probably has 5 yards to get going. The last TD drive of the half had a questionable (at least in my eyes) catch for a first, and Golson made a couple of nice throws under pressure (including escaping the grasp of Clark).
My point isn't to paper over a issues in that first half, but if you had told me one team would have burned thru 2 timeouts on their opening drive, rushed for under 50 yards, and generally looked out-of-sorts to start the game, I wouldn't have expected that team to be ahead by three scores.
Worst: Stop Burning Downs
I picked up Madden 2015 for the Xbox One when it came out, and one of the elements that has been talked about is the "balance" you should expect to see running and passing the ball. In theory, that means EA has continued its improvements on run blocking, always the Achilles heel of the football world. Far too often in previous editions you would try to run inside only to have guards completely flub a block, or rush outside and find 2-3 players ready to swarm at the line of scrimmage. It's early, but it does feel like the offensive line is more cohesive, and backs are able to shed tackles and work through holes the way you'd expect them to in real life. It isn't perfect, but at a moderate difficult I've been able to reproduce believable stats for guys like Reggie Bush and Marshawn Lynch against competent defenses.
But the other part of the offensive balance has turned out to be a regression for the passing attack, or at least a dulling of the differences between offensive and defensive players in that part of the game. Whereas before elite receivers could catch most balls thrown their way, now I see far to many "50/50" balls between Calvin Johnson and assorted DBs going the defense's way, and beaten corners somehow discovering the rare 86th gear to catch up to my sprinting WR before he breaks free. For the sake of appearances, it feels like the game has tried to turn the clock back to the 1980s and make the running game as essential to success as the passing attack, which flies in the fact of today's modern game. Yes, a team needs to be able to move the ball on the ground at times, but most elite teams succeed by either throwing the ball efficiently (see the Broncos) or severely mucking up the aerial assault (see the Seahawks).
So why bring this up in the context of Michigan? Well, in the second half I counted 15 first down plays before the final drive; UM ran 10 of those times, and it was 8 of 10 at one point. On those runs, UM averaged a shade over a 1 yard per carry. Mind you, at all points UM was down AT LEAST 21 points, and even when they were down 28 they just kept burning downs with meaningless runs because they didn't want to become one-dimensional or had to give sacrifice to the great football gods in the sky that feast upon inefficient offensive philosophies.
People have joked about 14-year-olds who play Madden all day being as viable offensive coordinators as the guys currently on teams, but at some point teams need to stop trying to "keep the defense honest" with plays and start keeping them honest by moving the ball successfully. I get you want to keep Gardner healthy and not open him up to hits, but that offensive line wasn't holding up very well as the game progressed, and 2nd-and-9 or 3rd-and-7 isn't helping the offense either. I had much preferred UM just air it out that second half, perhaps getting back on the scoreboard and forcing the defense to hold back a bit because otherwise they'd had Norfleet or Funchess running free for a touchdown.
We are now entering the rapid-fire portion of the post
Worst: Just Pick Somebody
I know last week I trumpeted the two-headed monster at RB, but that was contingent on, you know, both of them being good at the position. After this game where neither Smith nor Green provided much on the ground, I think Hoke and co. should pick a back and give him the bulk of the carries to see how that shakes out. As it is, pulling them on and off the field every series (or even between downs) doesn't do much to forge cohesion or a rhythm for the offense. Plus, both players are similar enough to each other that you aren't getting the "lightning and thunder" element you'd see with, say, Ron Dayne and Tiki Barber back in the day for the Giants. It's just two rumbling clouds out there, and I'd rather see one of them get a shot to run the ball 15-20 times than split carries like they have been. Personally I think Smith is the better back right now because he seems able to consistently fall forward and get a couple of yards every down, but that's more based on a preference for shifty guys than some tangible performance. And if one can't perform, at least you've seen a whole game of it and can either go with the other option or return to the split carries. I'd hope with Miami coming to town and there being issues with Gardner and Funchess you'd see them try with a single-back attack, but I'm guessing we're going to see both guys splitting carries with meh results again.
Best: Keep Throwing to Norfleet
Yes, Notre Dame starting sniffing out those WR screens and keeping an eye on Norfleet in the slot, but he brings an elusiveness to this offense that UM needs to keep teams from absolutely loading up on Funchess. Chesson and Darboh are fine receivers, but Norfleet can pull LBs and safeties from the middle of the field when he gets the ball in space, and until Butt comes back I'd prefer him out there than an ineffective blocking TE. He has a ceiling that will probably preclude him from being a top option in the passing game this year, but he's a true junior so you might as well roll with him while you still can.
Honestly, I'm not sure what happened out there in terms of pressure from the defensive line. You look at the box score and see some TFLs, 1 sack and a couple of QB hits and it looks like another disappointing outing for a unit that just can't seem to get to the QB against quality offensive lines. And yet, ND was held to around 2.5 yards a carry on 28 non-QB runs, and Golson was definitely getting the ball out quickly to slow down the rush. It still seems like it's a line of good players without a true playmaker, and in this scheme you need a line that can create havoc so that your corners and LBs are being forced to keep up with receivers for extended periods of time. I know people want to treat this as another sign of hype being exposed, but I'm just not sure yet.
Worst: Quarterback Controversy
Argh. I get that people are troubled by Gardner's second-half struggles, especially two bad INTs, but this was a holistic struggle by the offense, and there is nobody on the roster at the QB position who could do any better. Morris has an arm but he wouldn't have had time to unleash it with ND's pressure and a lacking running game. Now, depending on Gardner's status following that late hit to end the game (why him and Funchess were still in the game is beyond me), I presume Morris will see some time, and he'll probably play fine against a bad MAC outfit. But Gardner should be starter as long as he is able to play, not only because he's the best option today but also because it might save the next QB from getting hurt.
Worst: Hurry Up
For weeks the word coming out from the coaches was that the offense was calling plays faster and experimenting with the crazy art of "tempo" offensively. Well, apparently that word means something else in Indiana because far too often UM was snapping with mere seconds left on the clock. I get that the offense is young and they are probably working from a limited playbook, but this team isn't good enough to outplay a defense that has time to react and line up based on the formation in front of them. Even if Gardner ran up to the line and said "run that last play again" a couple of times it would at least change the pace. This molasses-like must be coming from somewhere, but whether it's Hoke, Nussmeier, or Funk being worried about the line, it needs to stop.
Best (I guess): This Offensive Line will get better
I know it doesn't seem like it, but the offensive line is slowly getting better. It wasn't a great performance by any stretch, but for such a young unit the line held up decently in the first half, and even with struggles in the second half never seemed overwhelmed. It must be remembered that they are learning a new offense without anyone really "versed" on it to guide the way, and they are doing much of this education in games. There were some big screw-ups that I'm sure Brian will highlight in the UFR (I saw a coupe of runs where at least 1 lineman either got beat almost immediately or released way too early, messing up plays before Gardner had taken more than a step back), but this remains a unit chasing the faint light of mediocrity in the distance. Being surprised about the pain of the journey every week is already getting old, so I'm moving past bargaining and settling into acceptance of the crap and looking for whatever sliver of silver lining might exist.
Best: In the Land of the Blind the One-eyed man gets a good laugh
The one "positive" from the weekend as it relates to the rest of the conference season is that most of the contenders looked turrible as well. Nebraska needed a miracle catch-and-run by Abdullah to beat Steve McNair U at home, and they might as well hand out some super-rad Hypercolor shirts for the defense because those black ones are going to stay in the closet for another year. Ohio State and (in particular) J.T. Barrett looked hapless at times against Virginia Tech, especially a Hokie defense that, while less-than-terrifying current state compared to years past, is not the type of unit a young QB with accuracy issues wants to face. And while MSU had the most "understandable" loss going down to Oregon out in Eugene, the fact that they crumbled in the second half and the vaunted defense yielded 28 straight points without much resistance should be troubling to Spartan fans, as well as the team's continued inability to run the ball consistently with Langford.
Further down the standings, Iowa was thisclose to losing to Brady Hoke's old team, needing to score 2 TDs in the last 3 minutes to pull it out. Illinois struggled to put away the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky, Purdue split its epic Mitten State Directional School battle with a thumping at the hands of CMU, Maryland needed to rally to defeat USF, and poor, poor Northwestern. And only last week Wisconsin blew the game against LSU in the conference's other marquee OOC matchup. Even 2-0 PSU looks vulnerable, needing a last-second FG to beat UCF in Ireland last week before struggling to put away the Yodeling Bowden's of Akron.
So while Michigan looked absolutely outclassed by Notre Dame, sadly I'm not sure they are in any worse position with respect to this conference than they were before the game. MSU remains the class along with Wisconsin, and then there's a pretty big gap until you run into teams like OSU, Nebraska, PSU, and sorta, kinda UM. I still expect UM to finish behind a couple of teams in the conference, but nobody looks to be a high-level team save maybe MSU in the right circumstances. Michigan still has a long way to go before they'll be considered a good program nationally, but within this crappy league they could still stand as one of the taller midgets.
It doesn't matter.
Worst: I'm Irish; Where's my Luck?
Now, like a lot of Michiganders I have a fair bit of Irish heritage, in my case a couple grandparents who came to America directly from Éire. I was raised an Irish Catholic, celebrated St. Patrick's Day with corn beef and cabbage, loved both Roy and Robbie Keane, and was constantly reminded how lucky I was to not be a fine gentleman's pair of boots or a nourishing meal. And so in addition to being the butt of jokes about crippling alcoholism and an inability to tan, I've heard about the apparent "luck" of my people and the power of a clover. And yet, as long as I've been a Michigan fan this good luck never seems to apply when my team plays Notre Dame. In one of those apparent contradictions, like when both teams pray to the same higher power to bring them a victory, the fact that Notre Dame decided to call themselves the somewhat-derogatory "Fighting Irish" instead of the "Slamming Shamrocks" or "Proto Bonos" apparently trumps all other talismans or heritage.
I understand that homefield advantage is a real thing, especially in college football, and teams do tend to play better at home than away. And that advantage can sometimes manifest itself in atypical ways, such as being a fraction of a second closer in coverage, downing a punt at the 1 yard line, or a rabid crowd subconsciously influencing the referees. I don't even know where I'm going with this except to say that I'm worried the Denard used up all of our luck a couple of years ago.
Worst: There Ain't Nobody Better
I'll be frank: I don't think Brady Hoke should be let go after this season unless it becomes clear that the team is just spiraling out of control (and looking at the schedule, that seems unlikely). This sentiment isn't because I have some long-standing love for the guy or his performance so far at UM (I was down on his initial hire, and while he seems like a good guy and a competent coach he's not going to set the world on fire), but because I don't see anyone out there who is going to improve Michigan's situation appreciably. UM isn't a "destination" anymore when it comes to college football, at least not in the way that elite programs are. It has so much baggage and so many masters to please that unless you are an alum or a masochist (or in the case of Jim Harbaugh, both), it doesn't seem worth it to suffer through a bunch of 3-4 loss seasons and get pilloried by a dysfunctional media and an absent-minded athletic department. It's a once-proud program that isn't a destination anymore, one that is going to bristle when a veteran coach tries to impose his will on the institution and severely retard the rocket attached to the back of an up-and-coming coach.
When you are the coach of the Wolverines, you have to keep the old generation happy AND compete in a college football landscape that has moved well beyond Bo's glory years and the 1997 championship team. There is a vocal minority of this fanbase looking at this team from deep within their own colons, expecting it to be elite because of the block M and the ghosts of Yost without acknowledging that what used to work simply doesn't anymore. They look at RR and his "gimmick" offense as a fad, not a lottery ticket that didn't hit the jackpot but should have encouraged UM to buy another ticket for the next drawing.
Brady Hoke is trying his best; he hired a good defensive coordinator, made a switch from an unpopular offensive coordinator sooner than most expected, and continues to recruit well given the team he inherited and the recent struggles. But he's not going to drag UM back to the pinnacle of the sport, and that's okay for now. UM isn't anywhere close to competing with the elite teams in this country consistently; they just need to start winning games and keeping pace with the other squads in the conference. Hoke has a ceiling, and that is a team that wins 9-10 games a year and can hang with anyone in the B1G and most other non-elite teams OOC. Once he hits that ceiling, though, it is probably time to replace him with a coach who can take that good squad and make it great.*
So replacing him now simply weakens a team with real holes, creates another coaching search that will inevitably end badly, and probably impede the one thing Hoke has consistently done, which is recruit good players to the school. In a cold, transactional nature of internet coaching, Hoke is the guy who gets you back to the level at which you can get The Next Guy, and that's why trying to start over AGAIN with a new coach doesn't make sense.
*A good analogy is Doug Collins in basketball; he coached the Bulls when Michael Jordan was just starting to come into his own in the league, then was replaced by Phil Jackson when the Bulls were prepared to make the leap to elite
Meh: What's Next?
Got me. They'll probably win against Miami and Utah, and then the conference season kicks off. OSU is a trainwreck but it's still so far in the future that they're bound to be competent by the time UM visits Columbus. MSU looks vulnerable but not to this offense, and with injuries mounting the defense probably won't be disruptive enough to slow down MSU's attack. PSU still has holes that good teams can exploit, and while UM still can't seem to handle tempo all that well IU's defense isn't going to be able to bottle up Funchess and co. if everyone is healthy. It still feels like there are 2-3 losses waiting for this team, but Notre Dame is probably a bit better than everyone expected with Golson at the helm, and while it wouldn't have mattered overall UM probably left 7-10 points on the field. I'm sticking to my 8-4 prediction, but it's not going to be a fun ride.
For a variety of reasons, this is going to be a (relatively) short edition of this diary. I’ll try to touch on a couple of points, but the fact that this wasn’t Horror II: Electric Boogaloo is all most UM fans hoped for.
Best: They’re Learning
I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.
I never thought UM would have any trouble against Appalachian State. Though 2007 was a mere 7 years ago, even at glacial-pace UM there have been wholesale changes to the football program and its view of the sport’s landscape that it might as well have been 70 years.
Chief amongst these changes has been a necessary expansion in how the program views the college football landscape. Though they still sometimes talk about it with dismissive tones, the coaches today recognize that up-tempo, spread-style offenses are viable and gameplan accordingly, unlike in 2007 when the lessons of Troy Smith in The Game were ignored due to pride, stubbornness, or idiocy, only to be ruthlessly duplicated by proto-Denards Armanti Edwards and Dennis Dixon to start the season.* That doesn’t mean UM can’t be beaten by such a team (OSU did it last year with a variant), but at least now the defense seems suitably equipped to respond, unlike when Johnny Sears was trotted out and led to this prescient outlook from Brian before Oregon came to town.
[Oregon] Will shred us. Our linebackers are clueless, we're going to spend the entire game in a nickel against four and five receiver sets, and the Ducks' talent level is vastly higher than Appalachian State's. Only errors from Dixon will keep us from playing Purdue 2006 opposite them; thankfully Dixon is the kind of guy who makes tons of errors. I figure the preparation levels will be better, but I also don't buy that Michigan can not be prepared to defend 21 instances of a basic running play. The defense sucks.
And that’s the thing – the ass-kicking by Oregon, had it not been preceded by the Appalachian upset, may not have been enough to force the types of changes we saw in the intervening years. Oregon was a major college program, from a power conference, and UM faithful could have waved their hands and justified the loss due to Oregon’s “gimmicky” offense combined with D1 talent. UM had been blitzed by good teams before, and this probably wouldn’t have been viewed as nothing more than a bad day and a bad opponent. But when a body-bag game rises up and Weekend at Bernie’s you, change went from a luxury to a necessity.
That 2007 loss will forever remain a prominent footnote to UM’s history, but I believe it set into motion the type of maturation and evolution that was necessary for the next stage of Michigan football to take shape. It begat RR, which led to Forcier, Denard, and Gardner, and even when Rodriguez was fired the influence of the spread lingered in Hoke’s first couple of seasons. Though the offense itself appears headed to more heavy artillery, with rocket arms and galloping trees replacing super goats, the defense has the types of players you need to compete against a far wider array of offenses than years ago.
This ASU team is a shadow of the program that came to Ann Arbor years ago, but what it embodies hasn’t, and the fact UM dominated them without breaking a sweat shouldn’t be overlooked.
* And from a personal standpoint, I had watched UM struggle against mobile QBs for years, from Donovan McNabb at Syracuse to Jarious Jackson at Notre Dame. While it can be said that players like McNabb could make most teams look bad defensively, it felt like the coaches were the British taken aback by the colonists using clever ambushes and non-traditional tactics to defeat them. Lloyd Carr and co. ascribed to the rules of engagement, and at times it seemed they were incapable of responding if you didn’t follow suit.
Best: Snake on an ATV
I know I’m getting the reputation around these parts as the guy who writes about professional wrestling too much, and I’m honestly trying to cut down on the references because they lead to tangents, but just when I think I’m out of the woods…
Can I get a Hell Yeah!
But honestly, it was fun to hear him talk about football on Gameday, and getting Lee Corso to share a drink on screen is the second-most enjoyable moment I’ve had watching Lee in years. We all know the first.
Best: Ghost Hunters
So before I started writing this diary, I was trying to think of other famous upsets and if there was some parallel between teams getting their “revenge” later on. I’m thinking Chaminade over UVa in 1982, Temple over VaTech in 1998, and the like. I know that teams can’t erase upsets, but perhaps future domination helps to ease the pain from that historic misstep, a balm to soothe the burn.
What I realized, though, is that those upsets aren’t stains as much as they are ghosts. UVa has beaten Chaminade, and Virginia Tech slipped by Temple a couple of years later, and yet I had to look those up games for 10 minutes while I remember both of those upsets (along with James Madison over the Hokies in 2010 and Stanford beating USC in 2007 before we all realized Harbaugh was a dickish genius) like they were yesterday. These losses linger because there is no way to exorcise them, and that’s kind of the beauty of college sports. These upsets aren’t malevolent spirits out to desecrate the affected institutions; they are simply a reminder that on any given Saturday one team can find those couple extra inches** and win the game. And what happens before and after is meaningless for them to remain a part of the teams’ fabrics. App St. will always have that win and UM will always have that loss, and that’s okay.
So I was never bothered by Brandon signing up for this game again. UM shouldn’t “run away” from the past, as if everyone will just forget about the biggest de-pantsing in college football history if the victim always wears a belt and suspenders. I can accept that a better opponent could have been scheduled based on results on the field, but that was never the argument. UM’s now evened up their series with the Mountaineers, and if Brandon wants to schedule them again in the future because it’s an easy win and fills up the stadium, by all means do it.
** I know it’s cliche, but I still love that scene. Dumb movie overall, but that’s a great bit of delivery.
Best: Oh Yeah, The Game
We’re a thousand words into this thing and I haven’t really talked about the specifics of the game. Well, there’s a reason for that – this was a blowout from the opening whistle. UM was up 35-0 at halftime despite not playing amazingly well, holding the Mountaineers to under 100 yards of total offense and a couple first downs (including a penalty-assisted one due to Frank Clark laughing at the mortal construct that is the “punt shield”). Gardner had a great first half (though he had a little arm-punt action on his second TD), going 13/14 for 3 TDs (all to Devin Funchess), and after some early struggles the running game pumped out 350 yards on the ground at nearly 10 ypc. Both Green and Smith broke 100 yards rushing, and the offensive line opened up holes and kept the QBs pretty clean through. Funchess proved his worthiness of the #1 jersey to people who seemed unnaturally infatuated with a number previously worn by a guy with a pretty extensive “Legal issues” section to his Wikipedia page, pulling in 7 catches for 95 yards and generally looking like a first-round draft pick.
Like all games, there were definitely some minor issues. Jake Ryan The defense let up a bit in the 2nd half when Mattison liberally inserted 2nd- and 3rd-teamers and eschewed even token pressure on many downs, and Morris looked every bit the part of a backup still trying to match his physical tools with the mental elements of the game at the collegiate level, but those are minor nits. This was the type of performance you expect from a good team against a below-average Sun Belt squad, and regardless of opponent it was nice to see heading into South Bend next week.
Best: They blocked people!
I’m definitely not an offensive line guru, so I defer to the experts in this estimation, but overall it felt like a positive step for the offensive line marked by a number of lingering issues that will be there for most of the year. The inside of the line struggled early on getting a significant push, and while that can happen from time to time it was still jarring to see guys like Miller and Burzynski get pushed back with (relative) ease. Mason Cole is a true freshman, and while his potential showed he also suffered from the usual struggles of a first-time starter, including giving up an early sack of Gardner. As the game progressed the line definitely seemed to be more in sync, and both Smith and Green showed much-improved running form in no small part due to the fact that they didn’t have guys in the backfield every time the ball was snapped.
Make no mistake about it – as Brian noted in his season preview, mediocre is the bright, shiny beacon in the distance for this year’s line, but it wasn’t a trainwreck and considering this was a team that couldn’t get 100 yards from any of its backs against CMU last year, I’ll take this as a positive. Next week against Notre Dame should be a stiffer test, but that defense looked a little shallow even before the suspensions, so perhaps the not-Morrissey times will keep going in South Bend as well.
Best: The defense
On one hand you’d hope a defense comprised almost exclusively of top-rated players and/or experienced returning starters wouldn’t struggle shutting down a mediocre offense, but on the other it was extremely gratifying to watch UM give up one long-ish run to start the game and then basically close the door on Appalachian State until the contest was very much decided. The box score only shows 2 sacks and 2 more TFLs, but the line was constantly pressuring App St.’s QB and bottling up their running backs in that first half.
The secondary wasn’t tested much, but even with some meaningless drives in the 2nd half that helped to inflate the numbers it held App. St. to about 50% completion percentage and under 4 ypa. It looked like a “vintage” Michigan defense, and the logical maturation of the unit that held up pretty well last year until they played OSU. They really do have 3-4 corners who could be starters on most teams in the conference, and Thomas getting some serious run in the 2nd half was nice to see even though it seemed like the defense was in a bit of a shell. Also, that punt block was McCray was pretty awesome, with Gedeon’s rather athletic return for a TD punctuating a great day by the defense. Just another couple lottery tickets I know, but the young guys looked solid out there.
Overall, it looked like a defense that can win games provided the offense is at least competent, and right now it is probably the 2nd-best unit in the league. Time will tell how they’ll hold up against the more explosive outfits in the conference, but I can definitely see why people were calling it a potential top-10 unit in the preseason.
Best: 100a and 100b
I know people want there to be a clear #1 RB, but right now (a) I don’t think either player has distinguished himself sufficiently to warrant the bulk of the carries, and (b) I don’t think it really matters. Smith definitely looked shiftier and sturdier while Green continued that unnerving trend of going down on less contact than you’d expect, and on Gardner’s first run of the year it sure seemed like he was expecting Green to be there and not running the opposite direction. So it’s a work in progress. But having two backs who can produce at a high level is perfectly fine for this offense. Both are young and still developing; in a perfect world one would have red-shirted last year. I would be fine if UM continues to play a backfield by committee as long as everyone continues to average over 10 yards per carry.
Worst: Just Stop Talking
I’m happy I wasn’t the only one who noticed, but my gawd were the announcers vapid and useless. Mowins was trying out there, but sometimes a lot can be said by saying very little, and telling me that jerseys have numbers on both sides and that throwing passes to wide-open players is a good sign for an offense are probably best left unsaid. Though it was nice for her to wax poetically about Union Hall, that historical landmark on UM’s Brooklyn campus where well-to-do “alternative” parents can play Bocce and talk about their lives before they became saturated with urban beekeeping and baby DJ’ing. She probably felt like she had to compensate for charisma vacuum Joey Galloway, who probably would have had more fun taking selfies and trying to color inside the lines than actually call a football game.
Quick diatribe: I remain flabbergasted that former athletes keep getting recruited for on-air speaking roles based on whatever minimal “name recognition” they have from their playing days. I know Troy Aikman has become a competent announcer, but this was me for years listening to him call a Cowboys-Eagles game.
They rarely bring meaningful insights to the proceedings, and for every Spielman or Collinsworth you get a dozen Robert Smiths and whoever that former Northwestern DB who can’t string two sentences together. Not to make light of the situation, but lots of these guys stopped playing in part because their bodies were breaking down and they had suffered untold cranial injuries. At their best most of these guys were average public speakers, yet every year we keep putting suits on them, handing them a hot mic, and expecting them to be great orators. There’s a reason Robert Smith isn’t a doctor like he always said he would be, and while that’s probably in large part due to him being a f**king pretentious goober, the concussions probably didn’t help. It’ll never change, but one of these days I hope executives wake up and just let people who know about football talk about it and not try to shoehorn in these human props in 3-piece suits.
Worst: You ate my last Fig Thing
I’m pretty down on Notre Dame, even with their solid win over Rice. It looks like a team with talented starters and a huge chasm to the backups. Golson is a weapon, but I just don’t see the playmakers like they had in years past, and the defense is replacing NFL draft picks with question marks in the front 7. It will be close because these games tend to be, but UM should enter this game the favorite regardless of ND’s pre-season ranking.
What makes this a worst is that this is the last scheduled matchup for the foreseeable future between these two programs, and the fact it is should bother fans of college sports beyond the two fanbases. I understand the logistics of why Notre Dame backed out of the last years of the pairing, and neither program has been as dominant as they once were, but it remains one of the more “fun” rivalries in college sports, the right mix of distaste and respect that leaves you enjoying a win without worrying about some fan doing something crazy. I’m sure it will be just as fun playing Virginia and Duke in September.
Anyway, let’s hope the game is as entertaining as past meetings, and that UM one more great win.
Seeing as we just had the annual heights and weights delivered to our doorstep with nary an emotion beyond “these large men either got slightly larger or slightly smaller, and that is good”, there really isn’t much else going on until the season starts. Sure, there was the BBQ and a couple of commitments, but I’d be surprised if much else happened until a couple of days before The Horror II – Horror-ier comes into our lives at the end of August. So yeah, figured I’d dust off this diary and expound a bit on the UM sports landscape, the upcoming football season, college sports in general, and a couple of other topics.
Best: Are You Ready for Some Football!
So it’s been over 8 months since UM last played a down of football (and, frankly, many more months since those downs felt meaningful). I know a great deal has gone on both locally and nationally to put a dour tone on the upcoming season, but I’m just excited for the sport to return and for my fall weekends to have a bit more entertainment. Living in NY but being a Lions fan, I’m forced to watch the Jets and Giants try to out-dryhump doorknobs for 3 hours most weeks, and can usually only catch games with teams I care about on postage stamp-sized feeds from random “sports” sites hosted in countries Russia hasn’t realized they might want to take back yet. But basically every Saturday from August until November I know that I can turn on the television and find some channel with Michigan on it, and for a couple of hours I can be unabashedly zealous over something pretty inconsequential but still incredibly endearing to my heart. That’s why I love the fall, and why I love having Michigan football back in my life.
[After the JUMP: lots more things that are either the best or the worst.]
I wanted to name this “Best and Worst: Rounds 1000000 and 0100000” but thought better of it.
Best: Survivor Series
(Because I want to lose a quarter of my readership off the bat)*
Growing up, my favorite professional wrestling event was called the Survivor Series, which typically featured teams of 4 or 5 wrestlers competing in an elimination-style match until all members of a team were eliminated. Over time this conceit has been diminished to a minor role as the Series has become a more generic Pay-Per-View, but at its advent it created a rare opportunity to tell a multitude of storylines during a single match. With relatively simple booking, you could put together teams that worked both on a base level (heels vs. babyfaces) as well as a nuanced (frenemies competing together, fissures starting to form between former best friends, etc.) one, while also teasing marquee matchups in the future.
But these matches all shared a fatal flaw, one that probably explains why they are not very common in recent years. Before getting into it, though, I should probably step back for a minute and provide some ground rules for the 2 of you who didn’t skip this section but also don’t follow professional wrestling.
“Good” wrestling matches are like your classic three-act play: the first act sets the scene and fleshes the characters out (via your standard “wrestling holds” and light brawling); the middle act is where the drama begins, typically with the face/good guy in peril as the heel dominates; and the third and final act is when the face mounts his comeback and a resolution occurs, usually with a dramatic final move leading to a victory for one of the wrestlers.
The problem with an elimination-style match is that this predictable formula doesn’t work on a micro level between combatants; on a macro level, of course, you can have the “good” and “bad” teams follow the general formula. But you can’t have 8-9 confrontations end with a finisher and a pin because, well, fans would get bored and you need to “protect” future match-ups by leaving some mystery and uncertainty about the outcomes. And so, watching these old matches you see guys pinning each with transitional or intermediary moves like lariats, sunset flips, and rollups, reserving the more high-impact moves for the end of the match, if ever.
So what does this have to do with UM getting to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year? Well, it’s that this tournament run needs to be viewed as part of a larger piece, of a team “surviving and advancing” as much as vanquishing opponents. Just like last year, these first couple of games were marked by moments of extreme beauty (8-15 from 3 in the first half against Texas, GRIII “chess”-ing fools) and long stretches of blergh (missing 15 of 18 to start the 2nd half against Wofford). Last year’s first weekend was punctuated with the evisceration of VCU’s swarming defense, but it started with a pretty ugly win over South Dakota State.
Blowouts aren’t really this team’s M.O.; even when they are shooting the lights out (like they did against Nebraska and Illinois during the conference slate and for the first half against Texas), they don’t play that ball-hawking, turnover-forcing tempo that leads to the Cardinals dropping 58 in the first half against Rutgers. They deliver knockout shots, but they’re of the “punches in bunches” Floyd Mayweather type instead of Mike Tyson’s “good night sweet prince”.
And unlike last year, where UM was staring down a date with #1 seed Kansas followed by a terrifying Florida team, the Mercer Nae Nae’s give UM another double-digit seed before they’d face either (I’m guessing) a rematch with Louisville or a winnable contest with Wichita St. And so if they can continue playing acceptable enough defense to weather the inevitable rough shooting patches, the path is there for them to make it back to the Final Four.
Best: Going Out in Style
At some point Jordan Morgan’s senior year will end and he’ll move on to the next stage in his life, but he is doing everything he can to keep it going a couple more games. He pulled down 10 rebounds in both games this weekend and added 25 points and 4 assists. In so many ways is he the perfect center for this team (solid rebounder and defender, doesn’t need the ball to be effective, can run and always has his hands up to score off the pick and roll/penetration), and it’s been fun seeing him put a nice exclamation point on a memorable career.
Best: A Dog-Related Pun in Picture Form is Worth a Thousand Puns in Words
So yeah, GRIII had himself a weekend. Going into the tournament, one of the team’s more glaring weaknesses was its lack of a secondary rebounder after Morford. You heard rumblings about LeVert possibly helping out, but you can only expect so much from a guy whose official bio lists him 10 pounds more than Spike. No, if UM was going to have any chance of not getting obliterated on the boards, it was going to be from Robinson, and while it didn’t much matter against Wofford, I thought he held up well (12 total rebounds, including 5 offensive) in that regard while also playing 71 of a possible 80 minutes. Sure, Texas pulled down 21 offensive rebounds, but there are going to be lots of opportunities when you shoot 37% on 62 shots, and it felt like that number was goosed a bit by some clustering in the second half when Texas just crashed the boards in a mad scramble to make it close (they had 6 in about a 5-minute span in the second half as they cut UM’s lead from 17 to 11, and another 3 at the end of the game).
Plus, it felt like Robinson displayed his increasing assertiveness on the offensive end (a team-leading 14 shots against Wofford and another 10 against Texas), especially during that second-half stretch when Texas cut the lead to 8 and Robinson responded with 2 FTs, a block, a jumper and then a 3 to push the lead back out to 11. No matter how many cutaways they make to his dad in the stands at the game, Robinson will never have his game, but there has been a steady increase in his confidence, if not his competence, on the offensive side. He’s still a pretty horrible shooter all year from outside (28%), but he’s deadly from inside the arc (58%) and good at the FT line. He still isn’t a deadeye from outside, but a look at his boxscores shows fewer threes that (I presume) are more in the flow of the offense as well as a renewed scoring touch inside.
They’ll need his athleticism to help wear down Mercer, and Tennessee seems like a bruisier, more defensive-focused version of Texas (#3 in rebound margin nationally, top-20 defense). Holding up against the size and strength of Texas was a positive, and even though it increases the likelihood he’ll leave for the draft, it is great to see Robinson rounding into form when it matters most.
5 starters were in double-figures against Texas and 7 guys scored against Wofford with none more than Stauskas’s 14. Still, the best stat of the weekend is that the team had 31 assists on 46 makes, including a career-high 8 from Stauskas to go along with his 17 points against Texas. Beilein’s offense isn’t designed for a dominant ball-handler or singular scorer, so getting an assist on 67% of your baskets means everyone is touching the ball and the best shot is usually going up.
Best: “Veteran” Sophomores
It is weird to say this about a second-year backup, but having Spike’s “veteran” touch at PG has helped immensely so far in this tournament, especially when Texas turned up the press a bit and Beilein could bring in Spike to spell Walton. Between Stauskas, LeVert, Spike, and Robinson, you have 4 guys who were key parts of last year’s team and readily adaptable to defensive shifts and gameplan changes. Especially if Michigan runs into Louisville or some other team that loves to press and push the tempo, having that many capable ballhandlers will be immensely valuable.
Worst: Hold Onto the Damn Ball
Though they corrected course rather emphatically against Texas, UM had a very uncharacteristic 11 TOs against Wofford. As others noted, it was probably just a weird game that happens to everyone, considering this is one of the least turnover-prone teams in the country, though it was a bit shocking to witness. It (almost) made me sympathize with MSU fans who have had to watch that all year out of guys like Valentine.
And while it didn’t hurt them much against Wofford…
Worst: Damn Rollercoaster
I absolutely recognize that when you have a team as reliant on jumpshots and three-pointing shooting as UM, there are going to be stretches of “Death from Above” when your breakfast tastes better than any one you have ever tasted before, and there are going to be games when nobody seems capable of putting the ball in the hole. But that crystal-clear clarity doesn’t make me un-see that second half against Wofford or silence those concerns of how a game could get out of hand if the other team didn’t shoot 1-11 and 36% overall in that half as well.
I actually do think the defense has taken a small step up in the tournament, as they have escaped the dodgy refereeing of the Big Ten into a world on the “reality” side of the Mason-Dixon line of the charge/blocking call. No matter how you slice it, holding a tourney team to 40 points (a school tournament record) is impressive, and to follow it up with another nice performance against a tough Texas team that can give you fits inside shouldn’t be ignored or minimized. But they’ve also faced two of the worst shooting teams in the country, and no amount of increased pressure and “closing out” is going to sustain a 5/30 rate on 3’s.
So as cliche as it is, UM needs to keep starting games shooting well and build a lead that can be maintained when the shots stop dropping. While the team has shown great resiliency, this offensive scheme is so (relatively) ponderous that it isn’t equipped to score lots of points quickly. Indeed, this team is built to get a lead and then trade you buckets as you try to catch up, with long possessions and the effect it has on the game clock serving as a 6th defender. The nature of single-elimination tournaments is that sometimes you’ll keep throwing scissors while the other team can’t help but stumble into rock, but the fewer times you give let it stay close the fewer times you can be surprised.
Worst: Free Throw Defense
This probably sounds like a broken record, but Texas joined an illustrious list of squads that could not f’ing miss at the line all game. All year the Longhorns shot 66% on FT’s; this game, 94% on 16 shots. That’s a 5-point swing that pushes a comfortable victory into a bit of a runaway. It hasn’t hurt them yet and it may not this tournament, but man is it infuriating to watch.
Of the many things they fail to tell you at the hospital after your wife has given birth is that your sports viewing habits will be indelibly changed by your baby’s arrival. Whereas before you could walk into the living room and basically own the TV whenever your favorite team is playing, now I get this look from my just-returning-to-work-and-definitely-stressed mother of my child.
So combined with work and a long commute, I’ve had to watch these games in non-traditional formats, either on feeds via the internet or on DVR. In a sense it has helped because I know the outcome or am so distracted that I just root for the laundry and the final score. But at the same time, you feel a bit disconnected from the best part of fandom, which is organically enjoying athletes playing a sport and (hopefully) winning. I’m not trying to be a buzzkill because I am absolutely ecstatic that she’s in my life, but for future mothers and fathers out there I’m here to warn you that your friends who say nothing changes are either liars or delusional liars.
Best: On We March
So on to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year, a streak that UM hasn’t enjoyed since [REDACTED]. Looking at the relative struggles of presumed “studs” like Florida, MSU, and Arizona as well as a number of key upsets, I feel much better about this team’s chances to emerge from this bracket, and at the very least make a solid run at a another championship game appearance.
Man, it feels SO nice to enjoy Michigan basketball again.
So this is going to be a bit abbreviated and focus only on MSU and the rest of the conference slate because, well, you know that Wiscy, Iowa, etc. happened and I like to save my salt for fresher wounds. Also, the WWE Network goes live Monday and there is a PPV on Sunday, so I’m marshalling my energy. You’ve been warned.
Best: All Three Phases
I remember very little from Chem 100 other than the fact things (intentionally) blew up occasionally, that the lecture hall had more students than my HS, and that most substances can exist in one of three states at any given time – solid, fluid, and gas.* Depending on both internal and external factors, a substance can vacillate between any of these states, with many a tome written and award earned from the study of these changes and the ensuing results. Because one of the most driving forces in human growth and evolution is this drive to figure out not only where you are, but how you got there; how what I’m holding in my hand or watching in the stars “happened” and what it means.
Michigan has beaten MSU 6 out of the last 8 meetings between the schools, with MSU not winning in Ann Arbor since early 2010, otherwise known as Heartbreak or, as I said to no one in particular sitting on my couch in the Bronx, “MF’ing Sims was held. What a bunch of shit!” I think talk of tides turning and rivalries renewed are best left to Dick Vitale under the influence of the vapors wafting off Mike Krzyzewski’s essence as he passes the announcer’s table, but the Michigan that had beaten MSU 3 times (!) total between 1998 and 2010 has become nothing more than an ever-receding Dark Ages, where dragons reside and guys throw lobs up 49.
When the Aneurysm of Leadership led to UM’s first win at the Breslin since Harrison Ford kicked terrorists of planes and then followed it up with another win in Ann Arbor as certain PGs were instructed to vacate the premises quickly, it was easy to dismiss those victories as coming against a pretty mediocre MSU team that made it into the tournament on the strength of reputation and a couple of nice wins earlier in the year. Still, it was a young team that seemed to finally be fitting into the system Beilein envisioned when he left West Virginia; good (if streaky) shooters with enough playmakers to keep keep defenders on their toes and away from the perimeter. There was something in the ether circulating through Ann Arbor, a whiff of possibility.
The next four games in the rivalry followed predictably; both teams held serve at home, with MSU winning pretty convincingly while UM scored their two victories with a combined margin of victory of 2 points. But while the margins were different, the results were what you expected when two equal-ish teams meet up, with MSU the bully inside while UM tried to win on the wings. Those molecules of competitiveness and equality that everyone sensed in 2011 took on a more tangible form, whether it be more consistent recruiting successes or increased tournament bids; UM wasn’t on MSU’s level quite yet, but there was a fluidity with which the teams competed against each other, and for lack of a better word the “tide” was to UM’s back.
But what solidified a return of a true “rivalry” between the two schools has been the two games this year. UM no longer has Burke, everyone’s POY and one of the best players in UM history, or Tim Hardaway Jr., the erstwhile freshmen who dropped a 10 and 8 in that first win and who looks like a solid NBA pro. No, MSU is supposedly the team full of stars, the standard bearer for the conference, and UM the team in transition. And yet, in both games this year, UM has won going away. They’ve won even when some stars aren’t firing on all cylinders on the court while others sit in street clothes off it, and they’ve won with The Butterfly, the Thief, and Blouses leading the way. So it isn’t so much that the rivalry has “changed” because MSU and UM will always want to beat each other badly; it’s that UM has been under the crucible these past years and emerged as hardened and strong a team as one could have hoped for. They won’t win every game against MSU, but all but the most delusional Spartans know that UM isn’t going anywhere.
* And yes, I know about the triple point of water and that there are a number of non-standard states. It’s a sports blog; let me run with it.
Best: The Elimination Chamber
In WWF/E parlance, the “Road to Wrestlemania” begins at the Royal Rumble (which took place several weeks ago) and culminates in April in the Superdome. And smack dab in the middle of that road this year is Elimination Chamber, so titled after the eponymous steel-cage-and-pod that serves as the main event. This event serves two masters; one, to help keep certain stars and stories tread water and remain relevant, such as Drax, er Dave Bautista taking on a “Mexican Aristocrat” named Alberto Del Rio prior to challenging for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at Wrestlemania XXX. That type of plate spinning is standard issue for the non-Big 4 PPVs, but can still be infuriating if the payoff isn’t worth the hassle.
The second duty of these stop-gaps events is to end one narrative and/or introduce a new one that will help shape the coming weeks. While there are a couple of matches booked in this vein (for example, the corporate-controlled, SWAT-looking “Hounds of Justice” The Shield taking on the Wyatt Family, best described as deranged hillbillies [one with creepy sheep mask] led by a hulking Max Cady-type), the Elimination Chamber main event stands to be the origin from which most major storylines will emanate from heading into Wrestlemania. 6 performers will battle in the cage for the WWE title and a date with Mr. Bautista, and it is a veritable murderer’s row of the biggest names in the company, including champion Randy Orton, Jort Hogan and WWE mega-star John Cena, and Daniel Bryan, Indy darling whose simple “Yes” chant has permeated the sports world.
The premise behind the Chamber is simple; two wrestlers start the match, and at intervals thereafter another competitor is “released” from his pod into the match until all 6 wrestlers have been in the match. The man standing at the end is the champion. While there may be temporary alliances and the old adage of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” undoubtedly holds true, in the end everyone is looking out for himself. It’s fun to watch and, from storytelling and continuity perspectives, gives ample opportunities for feuds to end (or at least enter hibernation) and new ones to begin organically.
To say this conference season has created strange bedfellows is an understatement. Two weeks ago, UM fans found themselves urging Wisconsin to hold on against MSU; a week later, Wisconsin left Crisler with a resounding victory and fans cursing the bridge that birthed Bo Ryan. Similarly, MSU now finds itself needing IU to win at Crisler to end the year to realistically give them a chance at a partial conference crown.
Without a true round robin conference slate, these plenary rooting interests are common; scheduling seemingly handed Wisconsin a conference crown before tipoff, and now MSU has to close out the season with two ranked teams will be playing for seeding while UM has to protect against spoilers.
And yet, for all of the tiebreakers and conference prognostications based on a handful of remaining games, what will likely decide the 2013-2014 B1G conference crown will be these two games between UM and MSU. UM has swept the season series and will now (hopefully) enjoy raising a banner to start next year. They now control their destiny, which would be pretty awesome given how the season started.
Worst: The Damn Injuries
How Tom, you do know that when Dawson is back you’ll have your starting lineup in place…
LSAClassof2000 originally linked to it, but I thought it was apropos.
Still a valiant effort by Michigan State given all of their injuries. Plus, their injuries. And then you add in their injuries. Pure grit. — Tony Gerdeman (@GerdOzone) February 23, 2014
I get that memes are typically overblown events that people latch onto for mirth and humor. And around these parts, no greater tale of woe has emerged for ridicule than MSU’s continuous lamenting of “injuries” to stars that range from the understandable (Adrien Payne’s various maladies) to questionable (Keith Appling’s “unusable” wrist) all the way to laughable (Dawson Leadership Fisting** his way to hand surgery).
** DO NOT SEARCH FOR THAT TERM WHILE AT WORK!!!!
One could chalk up this disdain to fandom if Izzo and his charges brought up the lost players once or twice within the context of a press conference; so far this conference slate, every loss has been accompanied with the reminder that this team isn’t playing at full strength and that people may be “shut down” for stretches to recover. MSU hit a school record 17 3 pointers against Purdue, including 6 by Gary Harris. In their losses to Nebraska and UM, they hit 14 total out of 47, with Harris going 5 of 20. Apparently, those wrists, shoulders, and ankles were fine on Thursday but that long bus ride between East Lansing and Ann Arbor jostled all the bones out of sorts again.
Reenactment of MSU’s mid-week “team bonding” event
And yes, it does appear that Keith Appling is legitimately hurt, though perhaps playing him 38 minutes against Georgetown following 40 minutes against Iowa didn’t help. But what drives fans crazy isn’t that MSU is (rightfully) noting they have injuries; it is the damn repetitiveness of the refrain to cover up fundamental flaws with the Spartans and undermine legitimate wins by other programs. MSU could very well come around in the tournament and make a run; we’ve all seen it before. But at some point, you’d hope that the people being paid to cover sports for a living would ask for some other reason why the Spartans keep losing games they lead going into the second half.
Also, stop smacking the court with your hands if your f’ing wrists hurt.
Best: Everyone’s a Banana!
Once it became clear that Mitch McGary would be lost for the season, most fans expected Nik Stauskas to take the lead offensively for this team but there were legitimate concerns about who would provide that second level of scoring, the “second banana” if you will. Based on NBA hype, GRIII seemed the obvious choice, but he’s struggled all year with getting his shot and hasn’t “taken over” games the way many had hoped. The freshmen (Irvin and Walton) showed flashes, but neither set the world on fire and had maddening stretches. Morford are a lot of things, but offensive playmakers are not one of them. And Caris Lavert, while certainly capable of scoring flourishes, was still an unknown quantity who could keep UM faintly in a game against Duke but then score 1 point in 30 minutes against Stanford.
I said in the last recap that one of the “problems” (I use that word very loosely) with last year’s offense was Trey Burke’s ball domination as he facilitated the offense. It worked 99% of the time, but it also highlighted the part of basketball I hate the most: the hero ball/one-on-one style that started to take over during the later years of Jordan’s first NBA run and became almost unbearable in the mid-2000’s when Wade, Pierce, or Bryant would either hold the ball for 23 seconds before jacking up a three or slamming into a guy as they drive into the lane and pray for a foul or a bank-in. Burke was never this cavalier, but the team relied so heavily on him to be the point person that if he had an off night the team was typically in trouble, and he was encouraged to shoot his way out of it.
Since the first gauntlet, the offense has been less explosive overall, but you are seeing a unit that can Swiss army a team to death if given enough time. If Stauskas isn’t able to get open outside the arch, he and Walton are still able to drive and find shooters outside or bigs cutting to the rim. Irvin has been better in conference shooting the ball, and Spike has his microwave minutes that can turn the second unit into a force. And perhaps most impressively, Caris Lavert has emerged as the heir apparent to Tim Hardaway’s lack of conscious, unafraid to take “bad” shots when they need to be made while not shying away from contact inside. The team looks like one of those incredibly dangerous mid-majors (with perhaps a higher-than-average ceiling) that are so hard to defend because there isn’t a “star” that drives the whole production. They still have issues defensively that won’t be fixed this year, but this team should be able to hang with anyone as long as a couple of guys are on their game.
Worst: Keeping it Close
This is more a complaint directed at the Wisconsin, Iowa, and IU games than anything else, but this team simply cannot afford to have long stretches of poor shooting. They aren’t good enough defensively to keep pace with teams during those stretches, and while they usually don’t beat themselves (only 3 TOs this game), they went around 4 minutes without scoring a basket in the first half, allowing MSU to grab an 11 point lead while shooting 59% from the field. True, this wasn’t Wisconsin bad, or even MSU last year bad, but this team has a habit recently of letting teams mount first-half leads and then clawing after them. It worked this game because MSU cooled down significantly in the 2nd half (thanks in large part to Beilein calling for the 1-3-1 zone) while UM was able to make a bit of a run, but you can only go to that well so many times before it is dry. I know this sounds obvious, but I feel like a loss in these next 4 games will come from UM either allowing a team to shoot lights-out without responding properly, or slogging through a bad shooting night themselves.
I noticed this both during the 1st half of this game as well as a couple of the recent losses: people stating that prolonged dry spells were due to a “lack of leadership” by guys on the team. Now, I’m an avowed enemy of “feelingsball” and cliches, so I’m already not a fan of these digital diatribes. But what particularly irks me is the insanity of it; it is one thing to complain about WR loafing his route or not getting back on defense in transition, but it’s another thing to blame physics on a guy not “caring.” Unless Nik Stauskas is checking his WhatsApp messages and hitting on college girls while standing in the corner, missing shots have far more to do with random-ish chance and the vagaries of putting a ball through a cylinder from 20+ feet away than anything else someone might overhear at a bathhouse filled with Merril Hoge, Dickie V, and Herm Edwards.
Best: This Is The End
As has been noted numerous other places, the season isn’t over by a long shot; UM still has 4 games to play, and MSU, Iowa, and Wisconsin are all within varying spitting distances of the conference crown. Lose a game to Minnesota or IU and you are back to rooting for upsets elsewhere. But this MSU game should be the last “major” hurdle for the team, and at 11-3 they are also rounding into form a bit despite some setbacks. I probably won’t be back with another one of these columns until the regular season and BTN tourney are done, so hopefully this isn’t a jinx. But I’m looking forward to watching the next couple of games and know that I’m probably watching at least a share of the conference title for the 2nd time in 3 years.