to play football, not to play trumpet
This is going to be a little shorter than normal for a variety of reasons. Mostly because I have better things to do than rehash another ass-kicking, but also because I have a half-marathon on Sunday that I decided would be a good idea not training for and I want to enjoy my last couple of hours with functioning calves.
Worst: Caring is Creepy
I want to care. I really do. I want to look at barely 100 yards of total offense against Minnesota through 3 quarters, giving up 30 straight points, the pick-six, the continued dumb punting, everything and care. And the fact I'm going to write over 3,000 words about it probably means I still do in some way. But right now, man, I just don't know why I keep watching this team. I get that Brian and co. need to because this site pays the bills, but what's in it for fans like me who are supposed to derive pleasure from watching their alma mater line up every Saturday? As I've mentioned before, I have a young daughter, a beautiful wife, good health, and enough hobbies to keep me busy most weekends. And yet, even after Notre Dame. Even after Utah. Even after the last x number of years of watching Michigan football screw it up more times than not, in ever-more-agonizing fashion, I keep coming back.
I don't know anymore. I might keep writing these columns out of force of habit, but I don't know why it matters. Michigan is poofarting its way toward its 4th coach in 7 years, another 2 months of talk radio complaining, former players calling out the current administration, anonymous sources reporting Dave Brandon is out, is getting a raise, is wandering around Meijers at 2 in the morning trying to Synergize with valued consumers about their love for Michigan and Dr. Pepper.
This season is 5 games in and it feels like it's been going on 40 years, the saddest carousel just spinning around and around while little kids are bored and everyone just wants to get off and get on some other ride. Somebody commented in my last post that they wish I showed more emotion in these posts, that I write them about passion but don't display it. Well, this is what ennui looks and writes like. It's a broken guy who is looking at the screen and looking forward to apple picking next weekend with his family over watching his favorite team in the whole f'ing world get worked over by a commuter school in NJ because it means Cablevision might carry the B1G Network on its basic package instead of the extra "sports" one I pay for.
Worst: Compounded Stupidity
Shane Morris is trying his best out there, so I want it to be clear that I am not questioning him. But there is no reason in the world why he should have started this game if Gardner was even remotely healthy, and nothing in this game dispelled the notion for all of his failings, Gardner is the better QB for this particular team right now. Morris threw one pick-6 that was a combination of poor blocking and staring down a receiver as soon as they broke the huddle, but he also threw 2-3 more passes that probably should have been picked off. He also fumbled a ball for no particular reason, and after being injured early in the 3rd quarter was clearly moving in pain. Morris may be the answer, but certainly not to the questions surrounding this putrid offense.
(I'll leave claims of Morris possibly being concussed and still on the field for those with more information, because I wasn't there and we've seen many players take shots and bounce back up. Not to play devil's advocate, but it looked as much like Morris had the wind knocked out of him by that hit than he was concussed, and the fact he was taken out 2 plays later felt like a coaching staff realizing something more was up than a hit. Putting him in a couple of plays later for that handoff is obviously bad, and his fumbling with a response in the postgame didn't help anything. [EDIT] That said, Brady Hoke is many things, but it takes a pretty extreme jump in logic [admittedly, one that a certain subset of the fanbase is dying to make] to claim that he would knowingly endanger the health of one of his players in a game. But as more information comes out, that could obviously change the story. I'm just wary of the reactionary tone that took over immediately following the game, especially by [mostly] uninvolved third parties).
And yet, Hoke just kept running him out there, giving him the "game experience" of having 300 pound men land on his injured leg and forcing bad throws into bad coverage while the line crumbles around him. Mercifully he was pulled late in the 4th quarter, his ankle clearly ravaged and immediately bound up in bags of ice, and then Gardner was sent in to, I don't know, try to move the offense after being put so far behind the 8-ball that he was basically playing Snooker. After the first sustained scoring drive of the day gave the fans a slight bit of hope, the offense again became bogged down after poor field position and that was the game.
Sadly, this is becoming a running theme with Hoke. Like his QBs after one too many sacks, he locks onto a single target and just won't let go even when it is clearly futile. In his mind, Shane Morris starting was the decision Brady Hoke, the head coach of Michigan, made, and come hell, high water, or complete scuttling of the offense he was going to play every down possible goddamnit. As with the continued stupidity surrounding the punting formation (which cost them another 66 yards after last week's debacle) and his clear preference for a slowed-down, huddling offense, Hoke seems unwilling or unable to look at the current situation and reassess his options; like the mark at a Poker table, he can't read the table one bit and just keeps raising on his 2-7 because there's the possibility he'll hit a flush. All coaches have their blind spots (RR was vilified for not changing his offense when he arrived at UM given the talent available, and the less we talk about GERG the better) but Hoke's seem so wide that we should probably just take his keys away.
Worst: Tough Enough
One of the hottest of #HOTTAKES going on these past couple of weeks has been the railing against the "toughness" of the players the coaching staff. Everywhere you go, you hear and read people questioning the heart and desire of this team, about its willingness to do "what is necessary" to win, to be great, and every other insipid sports cliche uttered by screenlight coaches and players. Amplifying this mentality has been former players calling out the program and players, questioning their abilities and lobbying for the removal of the coaches and Dave Brandon. The general sentiment on the always-reliable internet is that the program is rudderless and that the players have given up as a result, or at the very least aren't able to put the effort forth necessary to win.
I know last week I described the death of my optimism about this season, so this might sound a bit hypocritical to then attack others for voicing their own displeasure, but I am profoundly, mind-numbingly tired of people questioning the desire of college players and the people who have dedicated their lives to making them better. Now, I'm not defending the results so far on the scoreboard, nor am I saying that I believe guys like Hoke, Funk, Ferrigno, etc. are the best choices for the jobs the currently inhabit. I still believe that Hoke should be gone, as the number of boneheaded decisions (the punting formation fiasco and the lack of anything resembling tempo or urgency on offense being prime examples) has only increased since he's been at the helm. But I absolutely believe that he cares about Michigan football and is trying his best to make it a winner, just like everyone else involved with the program; to question the effort and desire put forth by the players and coaches is asinine.
But caring about results is only part of the equation; you need to be able to perform well to achieve them, and obviously that is where the team has fallen short. And some of that is maybe due to "mental toughness", though I guess I read that as more to do with lagging preparation and compounded mistakes than the idea that the players are too "dumb"/easily manipulated by bad circumstances and just mentally check out. Nobody is happy with the season thus far in toto, but the reductiveness displayed by a portion of the fanbase that conflates this objective outcome with subjective interpretations of how much college-aged kids care about their performance is even worse.
It highlights the disconnect and, frankly, the gladiatorial "are you not entertained"-ness of how fans view most athletes, but it is especially disheartening when we treat college athletes, many of whom are juggling lives far more complicated and strained compared to their peers, as pawns for our entertainment. When they succeed, we tend to imprint those successes on ourselves, taking pride in accomplishments we have no connection to beyond the fact that we root for the name on their jersies. And when they inevitably fail to meet our expectations, we bristle at the equally-absurd insinuation that this reflects poorly on ourselves and our passion, resulting in questions of manhood and effort being put forth by people who are, with few exceptions, infinitely better at the sport they play than anyone reading about them is, was, or ever will be at it.
So as a fanbase, I would love nothing more than the bulk of people (because there are going to be mouthbreathers who stopped reading this post at the hashtag and will continue to perpetuate this behavior) stopped wondering about whether or not kids and coaches who represent Michigan care about putting forth the best effort possible (they do) and instead focus on how to support them while also fixing the MANY institutional and administrative issues that have lingered with this team through its various permutations.
Or, to put more succinctly, stop shitting on college kids because you don't like your team losing and need to rationalize that sad feeling in your stomach away by questioning the character of other people.
Best: Fire Brandon
That's it. Oh, you want something more?
Okay, Fire Everyone.
I'm fine with the fans chanting. Might as well direct it toward something reasonable. While I am loathe to believe it matters much to the people in control, the complete clusterf*ck that has been the athletic department these past couple of weeks might as well be highlighted by the brave souls who actually watched the game this week in person.
Best: Former Players Having Opinions
Worst: Needing to Share Those Opinions Every Chance They Get
On one hand, I absolutely believe that fans of this team should voice their opinions, and that former players and others involved in the program have a unique perspective on how the team is being run and what should be its future. I'm just a guy who sits on his couch 13 times a year watching Michigan football and remembers how it felt sitting in the stands over a decade ago watching them play under Lloyd Carr. Like the overwhelming majority of fans, my involvement with the team began and ended when I paid for tickets, and even as an alum I don't feel any great connection to the program beyond the unhealthy obsession fostered by this site and the internet more generally. So guys who bled for this team, who sat through the two-a-days, the tough losses, the long trips and the late-night study tables, and performed admirably for my entertainment should absolutely be allowed to hold their own opinions and, in certain contexts, feel free to voice them much in the same way I do here.
That said, there is a fine line between voicing your displeasure and piling on, and when you step over that line you are simply providing even more distractions for a program that doesn't need them. When someone like me writes a couple thousand words bitching about the team, nobody puts a microphone in front of me or plasters it on the front page of the sports section, and that's probably for the best because I'm kind of an idiot. But former players aren't nameless, faceless goobers; they are "important people" who "speak for the fans", and so their words are given extra meaning when they are probably based on the same raw emotions and frayed nerves that swell in most UM fans' hearts right now. They aren't pointing out something new or unknown; to continue my analogy from last week regarding the Titanic, everyone's seen the f'ing iceberg and the ship ain't getting out of the way.
Brady Hoke should be gone; full stop. The likelihood of him surviving has moved from the nearly-impossible (beat OSU and/or MSU and win a bowl game) to non-existent; even with two upsets over the rivals I can't see the toxicity surrounding him to dissipate enough. Wins will be treated as blind squirrels finding long-forgotten nuts; the core problems people have with him aren't going to change and, frankly, they would only become more calcified if Hoke could pull off a couple of wins to validate them.
It may be counter-intuitive, but I think far volumes would be spoken by former players simply remaining silent through this whole process. Brady Hoke isn't a bad guy (sure he's ornery with the press but that's the nature of any antagonistic relationship) and his love for the University is true and, sadly, unrequited right now. But we've already seen with RR how a toxic environment, fostered in part by former players speaking out against him in the press with nothing more than poorly-thought-out rants and references to a fabricated "way we used to do things", can submarine a program when it is already floundering, and both for this team as well the next coach coming in, it would be a positive for everyone if the vitriol was dialed down. I don't expect that to happen, but it would definitely help.
That's the number of plays Minnesota ran against Michigan, including 40 in the first half. For comparison, Michigan ran 53 plays all game. I thought the defense held up reasonably well in the first half despite UM having only 1 drive in that first half that lasted more than about 2 minutes and change. It felt a bit like watching the MSU game from last year, where the defense tried to hold the fort against a bruising team while the offense sputtered pretty spectacularly. Even Smith's TD was mostly a short-field drive helped by a single long-ish run. There was no sustained offensive playcalling, and it left the defense facing a rush-first team going downhill at halftime, especially after Minnesota worked their way down the field for a FG to end the half. After stoning Minnesota on the first drive of the second half and holding them to a long FG after a bad punt gave the Gophers great field position, you had a sense that the defense desperately needed the offense to do something, anything to keep the floodgates from opening. Of course, Morris then threw his pick-six and the game was effectively over.
I know it is popular to complain about every completion or positive run as if the defense is falling apart, but at some point you can't expect a defense to shut down a competent offense for 4 quarters. Minnesota's offense isn't amazing by any stretch, but it knows what it's good at and when Mitch Leidner is hitting Maxxxxxxx Williams down the sideline for one-handed grabs, there's not much else you can do. The corners, especially without Peppers and a still-slow Taylor, didn't look great, and the front seven played well but failed the dominate the line of scrimmage, which was going to be necessary to keep the game close. Yet despite the offense's ineptitude, this was a game late into the 3rd quarter, and in another world with a different offense Michigan still could have pulled this game out. I don't believe the defense is dominant, but it wasn't "exposed" here any more than most defenses are "exposed" when they are left out there far too long and without any real hope.
Worst: The Offensive Line, Again
After a couple-game reprieve to start the year, the offensive line has been downright porous the last two weeks. It's clearly a young unit trying to figure it out on the fly, and that obviously isn't conducive to keeping everyone healthy and upright. That said, Minnesota was credited with 6 TFLs, but it felt like double, and this a week after Utah recorded double-digit TFLs and seemed to be living in the backfield. The running game seemed marginally better with Smith in there, but outside of that one TD drive the rushing attack never got on track. That, plus the mounting point differential, let Minnesota pin its ears back even more. Tight end blocking remains a major issue, as Morris's near-safety in the endzone was only "saved" by Williams starting his hold outside of the endzone. Neither side of the line seemed particularly sturdy, though with Morris as a lefty it will be interesting to see if that adversely affected blocking a bit more than usual.
As people have said, competency is the shining beacon at the top of the hill for this year, and right now that feels like it is miles away.
Worst: Gotta (Get) Some Separation
I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago against Miami, but without Devin Funchess at full speed it doesn't feel like any of the other WRs can get consistent separation from opposing corners and open up the types of windows a QB needs to hit. Given how bad Funchess has looked in the weeks since he picked up the most important 4 yards in the history of UM football against Notre Dame (hear those echoes), someone else in the receiving core needs to step up and provide an open target, and in this game it rarely seemed like anyone was doing that downfield. True, Morris didn't help the matter by consistently throwing behind, ahead, around, etc. his receivers, but when your QB's long completion is 14 yards and it's to the guy with a gimpy ankle, you are in trouble. It does feel like the team might be overflowing with possession receivers, which is great if you have other options but deadly when the defense can sit on them without fear of being burned deep. Minnesota does have a good secondary and Morris was, again, pretty erratic, but if this team has any hope of moving the ball going forward somebody is going to have to start catching the ball downfield.
Worst: Next Week
I keep saying it couldn't be worse but it still does. Rutgers should be a very winnable game, but who the heck knows anymore. I presume Gardner will get the start so that will help, and Gary Nova may just be inept enough that Michigan can pull out a win. But I'm finally ready to accept that Michigan is going to probably blow this game, and it might get ugly at the end. I hope I'm proven wrong, but I'm definitely not going to worry about it either way.
Note: This gets saucy.
Worst: Death of an Optimist
People who have followed this diary know I'm a pretty optimistic guy.
But I'm done. I'm done with this season, with this coaching staff, with this whole f'ing show.
It isn't the losing; teams lose games. Utah isn't a good team, but neither is UM, and this was one of those games, like ND, where the breaks of the game are zero-sum; "good" plays require the other side to have a "bad" ones, but those constructs aren't always tied to the overall qualities of the two teams. In other words, while Utah's punt return for a TD is because Brady Hoke is a dinosaur with his head up a slightly less-evolved dinosaur's ass, a college kicker connecting on a couple of 50-ish FGs in a rain storm is just kinda ¯(ツ)/¯.
But I'm getting off track. I'm not a fan of hypoerbole, but this is the Mississippi State game for RR times a hundred. Last year's MSU game was horrible but it was expected given how poorly the offensive line looked and how tough MSU's defense turned out to be. But Utah isn't a good team defensively, or at least isn't the type of defense that should be able to hold UM to 3 points offensively. It isn't the points that matter, though, because that would be comically simple and depressing. Both Idaho St. and Fresno St., two teams with a combined 2 wins in 7 tries between them, scored more points against this Utah team, and both of those games were on the road. And it isn't the yardage or statistics, as UM outgained Utah on the ground, took fewer penalties, dominated TOP for most of the game, and for long stretches looked dominant defensively. Like against Notre Dame, the team played better than the numbers on the scoreboard.
So maybe this is just another bad break, you say. And maybe Utah is poised to go off on another undefeated, fantastic season, and Michigan was just the first of many unlikely victims. And honestly, that mindset would have been me a couple of weeks ago. But things have changed. No, what happened Saturday is more than a bad loss, because those happen to good teams all the time. And it wasn't just that the f'ing winningest team in f'ing college football history, with a 5th-year QB and a 1st-round WR and oodles of talent up and down the roster (young as it may be), couldn't score more than 3 points against f'ing Utah. No, what killed my optimism about this team and this staff, about this program as it is currently stumbling through another shitty year, is how absolutely true-to-form it is to the dreams of the men in charge. Which brings me to my next point...
Worst-est: This is Michigan Football
For Dave Brandon and Brady Hoke, this is the perfect embodiment of football. No, not the losses, but that's secondary. To both of them, this brand of Michigan football is a perverse homage to a bygone era in football when men were men and you won because of grit and heart and having institutional advantages over smaller programs due to years of recruiting tactics, demographics, and inertia. It's stupid punting formations, always huddling without any sense of urgency, the 100k attendance record, and wringing every last possible dollar out of a fanbase that for decades was all too happy to do so if you stroked its ego and won 8 or more games a year. The Michigan that we all see on the field isn't what most of us want, but it's what the hive mind in Schembechler Hall thinks is good for business in Ann Arbor, and so nobody with the power to change it wants to right the boat. And that's a f'ing tragedy, because the lights are going out and Jack ain't coming to put UM on a door until the rescue party arrives.
Michigan isn't what it was, and "what it was" was never how a certain subset of the fanbase, including apparently this administration, remembers it. I know it is blasphemy to question the "fabled" history of UM football, but since the 1940s Michigan has been the definition of a high-level "plugger", the type of team that won games by showing up and beating the teams they should and losing to the teams they should by following a simple script. And yet as the game kept changing, Michigan remained its anachronistic self, buffered somewhat by this conference's stupidity-sealed bubble that talks about competing nationally while the University of Kentucky out-recruits everyone not named Michigan, OSU, or Nebraska and hiring every mediocre MAC coach with a pulse while the rest of college football laughs and points.
And when the fanbase seemingly had had enough of being run off their own field by a bunch of fowl, and the administration took a shot on a guy who helped bring about the current age of the sport and won everywhere he coached, a bunch of faux sentinels of the "good days" cut off his legs at every chance and sat back as a combination of self-inflicted wounds and the rotten core of a dying program ending his run. RR's failure as a head coach at Michigan is one thing; you can be a good coach and not be a good fit at certain places. But Brandon and his cohort didn't view Rodriguez's ousting at UM simply as a bad fit, but instead as "proof" that this new-fangled version of college football, where smart guys try to take advantage of inefficiencies in the game and implement offensive and defensive systems to do so, is just a fad and the good old days of swinging your member around on the sidelines and expecting the opposition to be scared off are back. Instead of trying to find another good coach and help him with the PR element, Brandon did what he learned as a one-time CEO of a mediocre mass-market pizza maker (acquiring the position only because his investment firm was trying to flip Domino's for a short profit) and hired a guy for a short-term PR bump and to goose the bottom line without considering the long-term ramifications for the program.
And that gets us to Brady Hoke, the last guy in the room when the music stopped. Hoke seems like a perfectly nice human being (when not talking to the press) who was a mediocre head coach before he came to UM (though I do think the under-.500 record part is a dumb metric) and who rode some nice pieces to an 11-win season before reverting to what he is; a guy who isn't very aware of modern college football and doesn't care much for what he has heard. Brian keeps referring to Hoke and Brandon thinking the ideal football was played in 1997; to me, that's being generous. That team may have been conventionally similar to past units, but for one year Carr recognized he had great talents in guys like Woodson, Griese, Tuman, Thomas, Ray, etc. and put them in positions to succeed. Hoke looks at a team with a 5th-year QB who can outrun most defenders and who has a physically dominant WR and tries to nut up for 3 yards a carry after bleeding 30 seconds from the game clock. He's not an idiot (the guy has forgotten more football than I've ever known), but he is stubborn, myopic, and as beholden to his "system" as any coach; the problem is his system should have been buried with hair metal and New Coke when its expiration was hit.
And sadly, even if Hoke and Brandon are gone at the end of the year, I don't see how things really change around here. Michigan isn't going to try to get an up-and-coming AD with a focus on fan appreciation; they'll just hire another suit who talks about brand management, synergy, and "keeping true to tradition" while everyone else in college football politely nods in public and laughs in private. And best-case scenario (for some) Michigan gets a Harbaugh or a Harbaugh-type, which means UM probably wins for a couple of years behind a dynamite recruiter before he pisses off enough people (or gets enticed back to the NFL) and then we start this song-and-dance again.
So I guess that's the state of Michigan right now: a degenerate looking for his next quick fix, afraid to venture outside of his comfort because it might mean truly having to change. Michigan is no longer the "leaders and the best", but a f'ing punchline to discussions about antiquated football and how the new guard of college football teams are making their mark. This is Michigan, and it ain't going to change anytime soon.
Worst: The Offensive Playcalling
I'm not going to crap on the offensive players too much because (a) I'm not a fan on picking on college kids when they are clearly competing, and (b) they didn't do THAT badly. Yes, there were a distressing number of TFLs, and the offensive line looked out of sorts at times, but many of the issues felt like miscues more than an inability to perform. Devin Gardner was off all day, Funchess seemed limited by a lingering ankle injury that was totally worth the 4-yard gain he picked up against Notre Dame when Michigan was losing 31-0, and nobody else seemed able to catch the ball or get open downfield. Green ran well when he made a decisive cut, but struggled at times with decisions and being asked to run parallel to the line against a small-but-fast Utah front 7. It was a bad performance, but it felt in large part due to the playcalling.
Man was this an awful game to watch from a coaching perspective. It reached its nadir when Chris Spielman loudly pointed out that Michigan showed absolutely no sense of urgency in the 4th quarter despite, you know, being within 2 scores of a lead/tie. He kept using this word "tempo" and "speeding up the game" as if this coaching staff had ANY FUCKING clue what that meant beyond that fact that it was what "pussies" used when they couldn't play football. Every play was stare at the sideline for the signal, huddle up, walk to the line, act like you are going to check into something else when the only playcall was to slam your collective dong into the doorjam again, run the clock down to near 0, then repeat. It was playcalling for appearances instead of purpose; Brian equated it to looking like you were playing football when you really weren't trying to. Today was worse than when it happened against ND because at least there the game was out of reach and I suspected that the staff didn't want it to get any uglier by taking more risks with a young team on the road. But this was was a home game against a meh opponent that Michigan was absolutely still in; a TD score at any point in that second half turns that into a very real game and maybe changes the outcome. But the offensive playcalling stunk of quitting, of trying to keep the boss happy. It was disheartening and frankly offensive to the fans, and one more middle finger to everyone from guys whose arms should be tired by now.
Michigan never tried to throw deep, or if they did it was only after botched play-action passes that needed eons to set up and left Gardner eating well-timed blitzes in the gut or throwing into quad coverage because the captain has turned on the "THROW TO FUNCHESS" sign in the cockpit. Maybe with Funchess being hurt they lacked a deep threat, which is sad but could have been mitigated somewhat with the type of slants, crossing-patterns, picks, etc. that other teams have in their arsenal. When it became apparent that parts of the line weren't going to be able to hold up against Utah's until-this-game mediocre pass rush, nobody on Michigan's sideline thought to turn the playsheet over and try to throw from the shotgun to at least give Gardner a chance to see the rush and survey the field. Norris and Orchard were living in the backfield for most of the game and Michigan's response was apparently to keep running their base offense and, I don't know, hope they get tired. I stopped keeping count of the number of 2nd-and-longs and 3rd-and-longs that Michigan set on fire with draw plays and short throws to the outside, and for every nice playcall (e.g. the pitch for the 1st on 4th down), there were absolutely boneheaded ones (Gardner's scramble on the failed 4th down conversion where Michigan had 1 blocker for 3 Utah defenders).
Now, I recognize that some of the struggles were in execution versus playcalling; Nussmeier and Hoke aren't calling in for Williams to whiff on a block or for Funchess to short-arm the catch on Gardner's first INT. I'm sure Gardner has been instructed to work through his progressions, but in this game it seemed like it was 1-and-scramble. And I'm willing to cut Nussmeier a bit more slack because, well, the guy has only been here for 4 games and it is hard to un-teach some bad habits. But Borges is gone and the same stupid shit keeps happening, and this feels more and more like a mandate from Hoke, or at least a desire to run the most inefficient offense imaginable.
Worst: About Those "Hidden Yar..."
Worst: You Stupid Ass, Stop Punting Like it's 1970
So yeah, you know how Brian talked about "hidden yards" in the preview against Utah and how Michigan's punting formations have bitten them in the ass since Hoke showed up? Well, Utah took one to the house to take the lead in the 2nd quarter and finished with 83 yards in returns. Michigan? They finished with 3 yards, with a long of 9 that was basically Norfleet making a bunch of guys miss. I don't think it made a huge difference in this game, but it remains one of the MANY embarrassing elements of this coaching staff.
Best: The Defense Deserves Better
Under Rich Rodriguez, it was trendy to say that Michigan's offense deserved better than the historically bad defense they had, and while that wasn't 100% true it did feel like the offense suffered somewhat by the defense being unable to get off the field. Well, under Hoke it feels like the tables have turned; the defense has become one of the better units in the country while the offense has regressed tremendously. Outside of an RPS 67-yard pass in the first quarter, Michigan's defense was sufficiently dominant in the first half. It scored on an INT and constantly harassed Utah QBs, including a tombstone piledriver the likes of which you usually only see in bingo halls surrounded by Juggalos.
Even as the game progressed and Utah pulled away, the defense kept Michigan in it. Utah had three total drives over 54 yards on the day, ending in a total of 10 points. The two second-half FGs were just great kicks; when a college kicker puts 48- and 50-yarders through the uprights with yards to spare in a driving rain storm, you just have to shrug and move on. Plus, both of those scoring drives came after offensive turnovers, one on downs and the other on Gardner's second INT.
For the game UM held Utah to around 2 yards per carry, 35% on 3rd-down conversions, and under 300 total yards despite facing 69 plays. They had 11 TFLs, including 3 sacks. The unit still lacks a dominant playmaker, but it is rapidly-improving and has shown it against a couple of good offenses. Put this unit with IU's offense and the Hoosiers are winning this conference in a walk. Though it is unlikely in the event of a coaching change, it would behoove Michigan greatly to keep Greg Mattison and the bulk of this defensive staff together, especially if it means they can move Manning out of the secondary and into a better fit.
Frank Clark continued his great season with his first sack, and if he continues to play like this he'll be hearing his name in the first couple of rounds of the NFL draft. I thought Jourdan Lewis played really well, getting to breakups and generally keeping up with Utah's WRs. Countess looked comfortable at Nickle, and Jake Ryan looked as disruptive as we've seen all year. Willie Henry had his fat guy TD, and was able to get a push inside that really disrupted Utah's entire offense for long stretches of the game. It was a performance worthy of a win, and my lagging hope for this team rests squarely on the defense keeping them in games against the dreck of the conference coming up.
Worst: Can You Have a QB Controversy When Everybody Struggles?
Gardner looked like a mess after that first quarter, but Morris didn't look any better when he came in the 4th quarter. Gardner was throwing late all day, and got Funchess crunched a couple of times on balls that shouldn't have been thrown; you are seeing what 3 OCs in 5 years (and no real QB coaching) can do to a guy. Part of the blame should fall on him for repeating the same mistakes, but it's hard to imagine that Gardner would have to go on an impressive hot streak to come close to approaching the numbers he put up last year, one that many Michigan fans consider a disappointment.
Morris showed a bit of life and still has all the tools to be a top QB, but it's been 2 years and the game still seems to be flying by him a million miles an hour, and next year I guess he'll just have to figure it out on the job, because there is nobody waiting in the wings to step in unless Malzonne comes in like a house of fire. If you want to throw in the towel on the season then I guess you give Morris more reps and see what happens, but based on Hoke's press conference he seems set on the farce that Michigan can still compete for conference titles and will roll with Gardner to the end. Gardner still feels like the best option, but at this point I'm not sure it matters.
Worst: Michigan Screwed Michigan
One of the seminal moments in modern wrestling history was the night that the "Vince McMahon" character became an on-screen entity during the infamous "Montreal Screwjob". The Cliffnotes version is that then-WWF/E champion Bret "The Hitman" Hart had agreed to sign with WWF/E's main rival WCW, and before leaving Vince McMahon wanted Hart to lose the title to "The Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels. Now, Hart and Michaels did not get along for a variety of reasons, chief amongst them the fact that Michaels was a notorious asshole at the time and Hart came from the old-school wrestling Hart family. Hart had absolutely no desire to lose the belt to Michaels, and had told Vince he'd drop it to anyone else. Making the matter even more difficult was the fact that the next PPV was Survivor Series in Canada, Hart's home country and a place where he is a beloved son. Varying accounts note that both sides had agreed on a screwy finish to the match such that Bret retained against Michaels but he would lose the title shortly thereafter.
During the course of the match, Michaels locked in Hart's signature sharpshooter submission hold. This is a common trope in wrestling, and typically doesn't lead to a finish in the match but instead simply some added drama. Yet, as soon as Michaels had locked in the hold and the referee started asking Hart if he submitted, McMahon called for the bell and informed everyone that Hart had tapped and awarded the title to Michaels. Mayhem ensued, with Hart trying to kill people in the ring and beating up McMahon backstage. Hart left for WCW shortly thereafter and only semi-recently made peace with the WWF/E. For his part, McMahon became one of the most hated/beloved heels in wrestling history, and helped kick-start the Attitude Era that was the last boom period for professional wrestling.
So why bring this up here? Well, because the story morphed from McMahon screwing over Bret Hart to Hart doing it to himself by failing to evolve and work with the direction wrestling was going. Hart was a popular champion but not a transcendent one, and while his in-ring work was top-notch he wasn't pushing PPV gates and merchandising enough to justify his salary. He was poached by WCW as much to piss off McMahon and weaken his promotion than because WCW felt Hart would be a huge star for them; though his career was cut short following a concussion during a match with Goldberg it wasn't a smashing success after the initial excitement of the move. Hart wasn't a dinosaur by any means, but like Michigan he seemed always a bit stuck in the past, a little too earnest and milquetoast for an entertainment medium that was moving closer to the edge of raunchiness. It didn't mean he couldn't be successful, but the ceiling was there for him.
I know this is repeating stuff from above, but Michigan put themselves in this position by ignoring most of the changes that have been going in college football for the past 10-15 years. They are scared of change not because they are afraid of failure as much as they are afraid of ever having to explain WHY something didn't work. Hoke would rather stand there in front of the press and say they didn't "execute" or "make enough plays" to win instead of saying he tried something new and he believes in it even though short-term results are poor, because with the prior you can harken to the past and at least say you were doing your job. But try something new, anything new, and you have to justify why, and my gawd is that impossible right now for this group of guys. Maybe Hoke and the team will rally; again, this is a terrible conference and they could lose to MSU and OSU and still finish with a decent bowl game. But the past ain't coming back, and the longer this school keeps its head in the sand about it the more irrelevant they will be.
I'm calling this a best because Minnesota can't throw the ball and is even less creative offensively than Michigan; Michigan will probably win this game and Hoke will be able to stand at the podium and spout off about "heart" and "resiliency". But this season is already lost, and the sooner it is put out of its misery the better.
I hope you saved some space on your plate for these #HOTTAKES.
Worst: Cue Up Morrissey
I'll get this right out up front; I am not nearly as down about this game as seems to be the general consensus. I'm a bit of an optimist at heart, but a 34-10 win where UM more than doubled the yardage of the opposition (while holding them under 200 total yards) and never being seriously challenged save for a random 5-minute spurt in the 2nd quarter in which everything that could go wrong did just doesn't get my blood boiling. Yes, the team looked out-of-sorts at times, and obviously this isn't one for the Gardner archives, but reading my Facebook feed and the comments on the internet, you'd think UM had just lost to MAC teams like so many conference brethren.
I do think there is a subset of the fanbase that must disabuse itself of the notion that Michigan can just impose its will on teams and the opponents will oblige by pulling their collective tails beneath them and scurrying away. The announcers of the game (who I thought did an immensely better job than last we heard BTN announcer/bitter OSU WR Joey Galloway and Beth "EMPhasis on the wrong syLLAble" Moowins) mentioned a couple of times that Miami wasn't "afraid" or in awe of UM. Now, maybe Angola was taken aback by the mere presence of the Dream Team in 1992, but a D1 team comprised of players from the same region should absolutely feel like it can compete, especially when the opposition is giving away possessions and clearly not at the top of its game for stretches of the contest. I know I'm harping on a seemingly-meaningless point, but the part of the Michigan internet echo chamber that drives me most crazy is the chicken little mentality that has existed for decades (and yes, this existed well before 2007). It wasn't pretty all the time, and there are definitely lingering issues (i.e. clock management at the end of halves, Gardner's skittishness and WR lock-on, coverages issues in the secondary), but this team looks light-years ahead of where it was last year in its third game against Akron, where they gave up 418 yards and needed a last-second stop at home. Michigan largely dominated an overmatched team saved for a string of bad luck in the 2nd quarter, and attempts to make it more meaningful or representative of the rest of the season feels like a fool's errand.
Best: Apparently They Listened
Last week I said that I thought it would behoove the coaching staff to pick one of the two key backs and give him the bulk of the carries for a game or two just to build some cohesiveness and see if Green or Smith could be the "feature" back in this offense. Well, after some chatter this week that Smith was seen gingerly walking around campus, Derrick Green was given 27 carries this game and turned in a pretty solid performance, averaging 6.2 ypc and 2 TDs. That average is both impressive (his long was only 27 yards, so it wasn't goosed by some massive run through the secondary) and a bit troubling (you kinda hoped the former #1 RB recruit could have broken a big run against a turrible Miami defense), but overall Green looked better as the game progressed and made some nice cuts and reads throughout the day, including what I believe was his long run where he went left then cut back right to burst through a massive hole on the backside of the play. Perhaps most promising was the fact that he ran thru contact far better than in the past, falling forward and getting those couple of extra yards good backs should always eek out. While I understand the value of multiple backs being interchangeable parts in the rushing attack, it does seem to help when a back can get into the flow of the game and run multiples series without being swapped in and out. While I'd still love for either Green or Smith to have that extra speed element that can turn some of these 10+ yard runs into 50+ yard TD runs, at this stage the rushing attack looks lightyears better than it did last year, when TFLs were abundant (only 2 this game, for a total of 3 yards) even against the dregs on the schedule (Akron had 7 for 21 yards).
Meh: Chaotic Neutral Devin Gardner
Gardner had an average performance, one that probably was a bit worse than I'm making it out to be (his mechanics seemed out of whack at times and a couple of his throws, including the INT, were a result of locking onto the WR and not setting his feet in the pocket) but also one not nearly as bad as the Russell Bellomy Special people are making it out to be. Coming on the heels of last week's second-half horror show, it was a bit disheartening to see Gardner throw another bad INT on a pass that led to Chesson getting sandwiched between two Redhawks. Also, and this is somewhat hard to tell from the sideline camera angle, but it felt like Gardner sensed breakdowns in the pocket that weren't there, leading him to scramble around and make off-balance throws where stepping up or shifting position slightly would have been sufficient. But unlike in years past, he halted the scuttling in the second half, and that wide-open TD to Butt that really broke the game open and settled everyone down. I saw some people complain that Gardner nearly blew that wide-open pass, but that type of throw actually seems harder than it looks precisely because of how open Butt was; as a QB, you are conditioned to expect a certain level of coverage on your receivers, and when a guy is that blindingly wide open it seems to catch lots of QBs by surprise and takes them a moment to adjust.
Overall, Gardner's numbers were fine (14+ yards per completion, 2 TDs, running when appropriate) and he seems to have found another weapon in Darboh that will help complement Funchess when he gets back. It was a workman-like performance, and coming off last week's game it was a welcome return.
Worst: ChadTomDrewJohnJimDenard HenneBradyHensonNavarreHarbaughRobinson Jr. Ain't Walking Through That Door
You always hear that the best position on a team is the backup to the "leader", whether it be QB, goalie, PG, etc. While the starter plays every game and exposes his failings on a daily basis, the platonic ideal of that player tends to manifest themselves in the form of the backup, who rarely sees the field and thus does nothing to dispel the notion that he would be superior to the incumbent even though in most circumstances, you know, he would probably be the starter if he actually was better.
Now, Gardner's problem isn't most people thinking Shane Morris should be the starter; beyond the "give reps to the future" camp, I haven't seen many people arguing Morris is better than Gardner right now at QB. What I do see, in veiled references and wistful posts, is the idea that Gardner is somehow demonstrably worse than those QBs who came before him, that if you put any of a dozen former QBs in his spot they would be world-beaters. To me, this mindset is the combination of whitewashing the past while stubbornly ignoring the realities of the present that you typically only see when you talk to Baby Boomers.
Look at Tom Brady's college stats, then remember he had future NFL Offensive ROY Anthony Thomas as the feature back, throwing to future 1st rounder NFL pick David Terrell and 3rd-rounder Marquise Walker, and was protected by All Big Tens Jon Jansen and Steven Hutchinson, with Hutch being one of the best 2-3 guards in the history of the program. Henne always had Hart and a cadre of NFL-quality WRs to throw to, from Braylon to Manningham and Breaston, and had future #1 overall tackle Jake Long covering his backside every year.
My point isn't to disparage the past accomplishments of players; Drew Henson could have been a transcendent star at UM if he had stuck around, and guys like Jim Harbaugh played in a different era but were absolutely deserving of the accolades they received. But they weren't world-beaters, and virtually all of them played on better teams, with better supporting casts and far more coherent offensive philosophies and coaching stability, than Devin Gardner. And they all had their flaws; guys like Henne and Navarre were notorious for locking onto their safety blankets (usually Braylon or Walker) and willing the ball to them, coverage be damned. Most QBs do that at various points in their careers, and anyone who has watched an NFL game with Calvin Johnson, Randy Moss, etc. in the lineup knows that this behavior isn't confined to the college game. Brady emerged somewhat as a senior, but he seemed like the definition of a game manager throughout his career, with his last game against Alabama being so memorable because of how against-type it was compared to the rest of his career.
Barring an epic turnaround, Gardner won't go down in Michigan lore as one of the great ones; not enough record-breaking runs like Denard, too strong a perception that he throws interceptions and misses receivers be respected as a passer. And games like this one do nothing to dispel these notions, but that's an issue more for the viewer than the realities of Devin Gardner's tenure at QB for Michigan. He's a good QB who probably won't ever be great, and that's fine; you have to go pretty far back in the history books before you'd find someone who would fit that designation at UM. But the constant strawmen he's compared to, and the needless nit-picking that seems to follow his every performance, is both an unnecessary exercise in rabble-rousing and a disservice to a pretty good player.
Best: Depth at Wide Receiver or
Worst: Is That Depth Only Interchangeable?
It was great to see guys like Darboh, Chesson, and even a brief appearance by Canteen get some focus in a passing attack that still seems to be figuring out what to do with the players available. Darboh clearly established himself as the starter across from Funchess, and he looked sufficiently athletic enough to punish teams who single-cover him, at least with the ball in his hands (that first fumble was due as much to ball security as a good tackle by Miami). Chesson couldn't pull in a gorgeous pass from Morris in the endzone when the MU corner swiped his arm, and he was the intended receiver who got crunched on Devin's tipped INT, but he his holding off some decent players for his spot and is also contributing on special teams. Norfleet didn't catch a pass but had a great kickoff return to start the game and his 21-yard run on 1st down in the 3rd quarter gave Michigan great field position that they ultimately squandered. Even Jungle Beats got in on the action, and looked like he could be a playmaker as the season progresses.
At the same time, it was a bit disheartening to see the passing offense remain a bit stagnant, at least in terms of downfield threats. Darboh averaged a shade over 14.5 yards per catch, and that included a 26-yarder that featured quite a bit yac tacked onto a short slant/crossing route. The longest completion of the day was on Butt's TD, which required absolutely every Miami player to not keep their eyes on a big Butt as it passed them by.
Given how the offense seems adverse to throwing downfield consistently even when Funchess is available, my inclination is not that Michigan has a bunch of possession receivers but that they aren't being asked to stretch the field. So far Nussmeier seems content to take a couple shots down the field a game but mostly focus on getting the ball out to his playmakers and asking them to make yardage after the catch, highlighted by the multiple WR screens and quick outs we've seen for three weeks now. Hopefully as the season progresses we'll see a more diverse passing attack, but at least so far it does look like UM has playmakers outside, in the slot, and at TE.
Best: The Charmeleon'ing of the Offensive Line
I was a bit too old for the whole Pokemon craze, but having two younger brothers and playing a fair bit of Super Smash Brothers I was exposed to enough of the mythos to make this reference kinda work. The Pokemon creatures, both as a homage to the growth patterns of many inspects as well as a shameless money grab to force fans to purchase ever-more "intense" versions of the same basic character, "evolve" as they gain more experience in battles and, I guess, in life. So like a mild-manner turtle named Squirtle can become the weaponized Blastoise simply be practicing and becoming more attuned to its skills and abilities, it feels like the offensive line is becoming more proficient and cohesive every week. Yes there were breakdowns, but the running game didn't get overly bogged down after some early struggles, and as noted earlier it felt like Gardner's scrambles were as much a response to phantom pains from past rib-crushings than Miami consistently getting pressure. As always, competency is the end-goal this year, and this unit is going to struggle against some of the better lines on the schedule, but this felt like another battle won by the line, and every week they are gaining the experience necessary to take the next step in its evolution.
I'm sure the rush defense is going to struggle at some point this year, but its been three weeks in a row now where opposing offenses are getting absolutely stoned running the ball. Excising the one 1 sack by Beyer, Michigan held Miami to 46 yards on 23 carries, or a very tidy 2.0 ypc. The longest run of the day was an 8-yard scramble by Andrew Hendrix, and at no point did Miami seem capable of getting a consistent push against the front 7. Both Bolden and Ryan looked more comfortable out there, though it still feels like Ryan is wasted in the middle given his disruptive abilities as a pass rusher, and Thomas was in to snuff out some runs as well. It continues to be a bit troubling that the team isn't recording buckets of TFLs, but its a minor quibble considering Miami had a total of 8 first downs all day, and most of those came on their two short-field scoring drives.
Best: All Those Penalties
One of those underrated stats that "smart" football minds used to lord over was the number of pass interference flags certain WRs would accumulate over the season. The logic is that a PI is at least as good as a completion; it typically means the defender had to bail out on whatever he normally does and resort to cheating to stop a long completion from occurring. Certain receivers tended to draw those flags more than others, and identifying them and their disruptive tendencies helped both defense as well as the offense because you could design plays that would isolate those players against corners and try to draw flags at key moments.
The corollary on the defensive line should probably be the false start, especially at the tackle spots. When you have a great pass rusher, your tackles know they need to get whatever jump they can in order to compensate, and as a result they'll try to "cheat" on quick counts to get that extra half-step before contact. In this game, it seemed that the Miami line was so worried about guys like Clark, Henry, and Beyer that they had 4 false starts plus one delay of game that immediately followed the first false start. Though they only recorded the one Beyer sack, Clark was consistently putting pressure on Hendrix, and had the line kept containment on a few plays they probably would have record 2-3 more sacks (one play in particular seemingly featured the entire line chasing Hendrix as he fled the pocket; you probably don't want to see that on a 4-man rush). It feels like the sacks are going to be there at the end of the year, and in this game the disruptiveness along that line just manifested itself in all the laundry being thrown by the refs.
Worst: Holding's Still a Thing, Right?
Each team was called for one hold in this game, with Michigan's coming on the last, meaningless drive. That seems about 100 short considering how overmatched Miami's line looked at times and how frequently a UM defender was thisclose to dragging down Hendrix or tackling a back behind the line, only to see that player escape for a minimal gain or throw the ball away. There is undoubtedly some bias in this view, but it felt like after the flurry of self-inflicted wounds by Miami to start the game, the referees seemed to let up a bit. Listen, just because Miami is screwing up before the play doesn't mean they aren't equally dumb during the play. It's the same mentality that led to the "press coverage or die" popularized by MSU and the Seahawks; nobody wants to call a penalty on every play, so accept some bad calls for the overall success rate you get by grabbing and holding. It didn't really matter in the end, but it was annoying to watch in real time.
Meh: The Secondary
I've never sat in on coaching meetings nor do I know the exact formations being taught by the coaching staff, but watching the game it felt like the corners were still struggling with the intricacies of the coverages being called. A number of times there were Miami receivers in the gaps between 2-3 Michigan defenders, with a corner trailing behind and a LB twisting around, trying to locate the ball. On one of those Bolden made a nice 1-handed deflection that probably would have been a nice reception without it, and an early 3rd-and-14 pass to Rokeem Williams was open between 4 Michigan defenders that Hendrix just underthrew. Again, some of these "mistakes" could have been designs of the defense that Miami simply countered; even bad teams can get you in a bad formation or find a hole in the coverage. And the defense was still down Taylor and Peppers was getting his first sustained time on the field, so some growing pains are to be expected. But I agree with Brian that the secondary still seems to be getting the intricacies of the defensive scheme down, which is usually a big enough problem if it wasn't also compounded by having the coach learning it for the first time as well.
Worst: Clock Management and Coaching or
Worst-er: Bitching about Clock Management and Coaching
Everyone complained about the slowest 4-minute drill to end the first half, and the decision to punt at the Miami 37 after a delay of game on 4th-and-1 were cringe-worthy, but I'm comfortably numb at this point to these brain farts with Michigan football, and would argue that this stuff happens to every team from time to time. Yes, great teams usually don't waste oodles of time in a close game huddling and then running clocking-killing runs from midfield, but Michigan is so far away from being a "great" team that "not screwing this up and getting somebody killed" beats out "throwing it for a pick-6 because your first-year WR runs the wrong pattern" even if the latter probably nets you more points over time.
I know fans want this team to be less derpy about clock management, but for better or for worse this is how Michigan has played for decades now. At some point you'd hope that the coaching staff pushes the envelope a bit and picks up the pace, but at the same time all coaching staffs have their blind spots, and when UM is back to consistently winning 10-11 games a year I'll start worrying about these wasted opportunities. It's probably a bit defeatist and unproductive, but no more so than the weekly complaints about it.
Best: One of These is Not Like the Others
Though the NCAA.com hasn't updated the stats for the week thus far, it is safe to assume that Michigan has one of the weirder profiles in college football. They sport one of the top defenses overall, especially against the run, and have a decent rushing attack (top 30-ish) and an emerging passing game. The kicking game is a little meh, but it isn't an atrocity either to the scale it was under RR. Michigan has outscored its opponents 117 to 55, and that is with the potential outlier of ND's 31-0 whatever that was. And yet, the team has a turnover margin of -7, with only some of that explained by poor ball security or bad throws. I know Michigan has been snakebitten in the turnover department for years now (save 2011), but it feels like that will have to rectify itself, especially given how strong the defense has looked overall. Provided the running game isn't a mirage and the line continues its solid play, that should take some pressure off Gardner and thus allow him to pass under less duress, and at some point you have to think Clark, Ryan, etc. will start creating turnovers in droves. Heck, Lewis's INT was a result of Hendrix being under pressure and throwing a floater up short. This team probably deserves to still be 2-1, and with a bit more luck, who knows?
Best: Cradle of Fandom
Usually during rivalry weeks around these parts, people talk about how they came to be a fan of the Wolverines. Many of the stories features tales of family members taking them to games as youths, or plopping down in front of the TV and catching a big game on national TV, or being inducted into the Michigan family before they even opened their eyes.
Me, I came to be a Michigan football fan by a more circuitous, or at least a less conventional, route.
Growing, my sport was basketball. Loved watching it, loved playing it, everything about the hardwood interested me. My favorite book was a compendium of the 50 best basketball players based on whatever criteria that ended up with Kendall Gill and just-out-of-college Christian Laettner.
|I'm as surprised as you are, Christian.|
Hell, I even bought Bill Laimbeer's Combat Basketball, even though I played it for about 5 minutes total. Now, I wasn't conventionally "good" at playing the game of basketball, but it remains one of the few competitive sports that comes with both single-player and multi-player compatibility out of the box; you can shoot alone on your driveway or join a pickup game seamlessly. My father's first passion was basketball, and some of my fondest memories involved playing horse with him as he taught me the hook shot and how to square my shoulders when taking a jumpshot. And growing up in the shadow of the Fab 5 era cemented my love for the game, though weirdly not for the University. Sure I loved the fact that my local college team was winning games with flair and had future pros up and down the roster, but you could have switched them with Central and I wouldn't have batted an eye.
Football was a different beast for me; while I had briefly played it as a youngster, it just didn't stick. My dad had attended Michigan and would watch the bowl games and the major rivalries on TV, but it wasn't a religious experience for him the way it seemed for other families. So it wasn't until 1995 when I attended my first UM football game, with my friend and his father, against the Miami (NTM) RedHawks. And as weird as it is to say nearly two decades later, that was when I probably became a true Michigan fan.
It was one of those beautiful fall days you always remember every football Saturday being even though most probably weren't. I had never been to Ann Arbor, so the hour-plus drive from Royal Oak, MI was a blur of highways and weird farm country. We parked a couple blocks off State Street (probably off Packard, but who knows) and walked down beautiful tree-lined streets to Hoover, then into the stadium. It seems like most Michigan fans have their first stadium experience in one of two ways; as small children taken by family, where everything is overwhelming and you don't really grasp it at the time, or as (relatively) jaded college freshmen who are impressed but have enough life experience and have many other things on their mind (e.g. getting acclimated to college life, classes, parties, etc.) that the full impact of the surroundings is muted.
Well, and this will sound like hyperbole, that was the moment I figured out I wanted to go to the University of Michigan. It's simplistic and over the years I obviously learned more about the school and how it fit into my future plans, but that day, sitting in those stands watching UM put away a plucky Redhawks team that felt eerily like this game (UM was never truly threatened, but that Miami team was pretty good at 8-2-1 and certainly had enough playmakers to keep up), I became enchanted with the football team, the stadium, the school, and everything that encapsulated. And that team UM finished with 4 losses, part of a 4-year streak in which the Wolverines finished with 4 losses each year, that ended in 1997.
I guess the reason I shared this story is that for all the complaining and consternation people around here have about the "direction" of the program, marketing efforts, ticket pricing and attendance, and all the other minutiae that occupies the days between gameday, it helps to remember that for lots of people, the magic isn't gone and the experience of being in that stadium on a crisp fall day is one that can have profound influence on their lives. Hell, the reason I was even there was probably because Miami was a "poor" opponent and tickets were readily available; earlier that year the 100k attendance record nearly ended when Memphis showed up. I'm not saying yesterday's game will lead to someone adopting the Wolverines as the University as his/her own, but part of me hopes that another generation of fans does.
Best: Bring on the Utes
It's fashionable to talk about Utah being a dangerous team, and I'll admit that Dres Anderson (who is one of my college football fantasy WRs) looks pretty good so far this year. But the two teams they have beaten are a combined 1-5, with that one win being Idaho St.'s "not as close as the score indicates but still not a good sign when the other team doesn't even have a logo on ESPN" win over Chadron St. The Utes have had a week to prepare, but Michigan will be a massive step up in talent compared to Utah's schedule so far, and while last year's Utah team upset Stanford and lost a nailbitter to ASU last year, it was otherwise handled pretty handily by the good teams on its schedule and only had a 7-point win over BYU on the road. It will be a tougher test that UM probably wanted when they scheduled this game years ago, but it also feels like a good barometer for the team's potential this season. I expect Utah to be able to move the ball at times, but Wilson is no Golson and if Michigan can cut down on the inexplicable turnovers, I think they'll emerge with a win.
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.]