"Jim's a tough guy and you can see his personality is all over this football team," Fitzgerald said.
This isn’t for you, it’s for me.
The maxim you always hear surrounding hate is that it stems from broken love, that the same fire necessary to burn with unbridled animosity emanates from the same spot in one’s heart that you once left open and accepting. Great novels and a whole bunch of songs have been written about the debilitating power of love and respect as it turns to anger and betrayal, grinding salt and bile into the fresh fissures of the aorta. It is poetic and divine, blind to race or creed, man or woman; the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” of being.
And it’s all crap, at least when you apply it to sport.*
The reason most fans “hate” other teams is because they “hate” losing to people they know, whether personally or as archetypes. I have never loved or particularly cared for most of UM’s rivals despite the fact I actually attended MSU for law school. When some school like Wisconsin or Illinois talks up a budding rivalry and bad blood with the Wolverines, I could not care less because it’s all relative and irrelevant at the same time. People don’t like losing, and if you keep losing to a team a bunch of times you come to hate that feeling. Replace that team with another and the hatred remains the same even though the target has changed.
UM fans hate to lose to Notre Dame because they represent the same blue-blooded traditions and faded glory, the same time-honored notions of scholar-athletes battling it out for school and pride and definitely not for financial gain. Perhaps on some level, it is also because the academic standings of those schools attract individuals cognizant of somewhat-arbitrary scholastic rankings and the “prestige” that can be derived from them. And, well, they’ve been around so long that at some point, you just get sick of seeing them year after year.
With Ohio State and Michigan State, the distaste comes from all of the regional, historical, and national implications found to varying degrees with the Fighting Irish, but also in part because of the cultural differences found at those schools. Whole stadiums could be filled every Saturday by the strawmen we create about our opponents; as fans it is the most natural way to look at the opposition, incredibly shallow in depth but immensely wide in breadth. With UM, the arrogance is the calling card; Buckeyes and Spartans call out UM fans for their “wine and cheese”, their haughty sense of superiority derived from endowments and famous alumni and the “Michigan Man” ideology that supposedly runs through the blood of every Wolverine. They point out the sanctimony in questioning the intelligence and morality of players on the other teams despite the fact that UM was likely recruiting them at some point, and wonder how it is possible to whitewash away all those sins as soon as a player steps foot in Schembechler Hall. And they point out that for all the stirs and echoes of past wins, it hasn’t been pretty recently.
OSU feels like the jock who broke the rules and got away with it largely unscathed, the guy who sweeps the leg even though he probably doesn’t need to. Ohio State has the tradition and resources to stand amongst the giants in the sport, and yet they keep bringing in liars, cheaters, and hypocrites who tweak the rules just enough while winning in every way possible. And perhaps most aggravating for UM, OSU appears to just be “better” than the Wolverines right now, and probably have been for nearly a decade. As UM has undergone a series of painful, largely self-inflicted transitions, OSU just continues on with few hiccups despite far more serious upheaval.
But at least with OSU, it feels like they’ve “earned” that right to be better than UM, given their prior accomplishments and their consistency. In this tortured analogy, they are the dickish prep kid with the nice car who gets the girl; MSU was Ducky. It’s a program with a losing bowl record, virtually no national profile, and a fanbase characterized as a mix of Juggalos and Ax body spray aficionados. It is the very model of a mediocre program, with the status quo being that MSU cared way more about beating UM because they almost never did, and that all of the “little brother” comments were appropriate-if-sophomoric shots at a program and school that was always tugging on the coattails of UM, never able to keep pace. It almost didn’t matter if you hailed from Novi or New York City, Charlevoix or Chicago; if you were a UM student you saw MSU as the collection of brosephs and meatheads (and whatever the female equivalents are) that you tried to escape while in high school. You beat them in the classroom, in the boardroom, and on the football field, and with such regularity it was hard to drum up anything stronger than a slight snicker and faux outrage whenever asked about them.
But that’s changed recently, at least on the football field. While I foresee this being a bit of an apogee for MSU given its so-so recruiting and significant turnover after this season, the fact remains that MSU has dominated this series the past 6 games (going 5-1 and losing that one game on a last-second FG). It is MSU with the consistent identity, the staunch defense and opportunistic offense, the team that gets most of the breaks and tends to win going away. It is the UM fans that yearn for those victories, who treat a game that used to be a semi-emotional speedbump into a major touchstone and measuring stick for the program. And perhaps most surprisingly, the hatred that was once seemingly directed unilaterally now flows both ways, more full with vinegar and vitriol than most can remember. It’s a bit sad in a way that the gap has closed this much between the two schools on the field, but at least now the animosity feels earned.
* I’m sure there are soccer fans who’d argue about national and club rivalries that are born from turncoats, geographic proximity, and broken dreams, and hell Pakistan and India play cricket with missiles pointed at each other. But I’d argue that animosity exists outside of sport; the field or pitch merely provides a sanctioned analog.
Worst: You know, they cancelled the O.C. late as well
This point isn’t going to be sugar-coated: I’m done with this offensive staff. I’m sure the UFR will point out areas where the right playcalls were made but failed because of execution issues (I remember at least two passes in the 3rd quarter where Gardner missed Funchess wide-open, even though at least once it was because he was under heavy pressure). But at some time, the writing is on the wall even if it isn’t totally that Borges’s fault. It has been nearly three years and the team is as schizophrenic and discordinate as ever on the offensive end, and I’m tired of the “wait until next year” refrains that grew stale under Rodriguez. And at least with Rodriguez, you had a high-octane offense with a clear identity that has worked at every other stop.
True, Borges got a bad hand when he showed up at UM, inheriting a playmaker and not a QB with Denard, a guy who couldn’t run his offense and who had few targets to throw at period. He rode it out as best as possible, but it was a bad fit masked by the early success the team had in spite of it; that 11-2 season with memorable wins over ND and OSU gave people the false hope that the talent and coaches could make it work despite the mismatch. Last year happened and everyone realized Borges and Robinson weren’t a good fit, but the expectation was that Gardner would be a better match at least in the short-term. The offensive line, though, has betrayed them the past two years, and the progression and maturation people expected has been, at best, minimal across the board.
Given the right talent, I’m sure Borges could field a productive offense, but that looks to be 2-3 years in the future. In the meantime, this team loses its best WR as well as its best slot threat, its two best linemen, and its only seemingly competent RB. There are some bright spots, but there doesn’t seem to be anything approximating a rainbow on the horizon. What killed RR was his historically poor defenses; outside of the IU and ND games, this offense has been historically bad, and something needs to be done beyond max protect and stacked lines against Minnesota. This is a bit morbid, but at some point you need to Marissa the situation before everyone gets hurt.
Al Borges isn’t a visionary, and there a dozens of coordinators out there who could score 60+ points against IU and, I hope, more than 28 against Akron and 24 against UConn with far less hassle and a bit more coherence. With weeks to prepare, he called a listless game that featured slow-developing running plays, long passes despite heavy pressure, and a continued belief that he’ll make this work if he just keeps slamming his head against the wall. Well, that wall isn’t going anywhere, and all we have is a headache.
I understand that loyalty in a program is hard to break, but this is also a competitive system in which under-performance can’t be allowed to remain unaddressed. Players have been moved in and out of the starting lineup because they haven’t performed “up to the position” while in uniform; it’s time for the guys making those decisions to be held to the same standard.
Worst: Downs and Distances
Here are some downs and distances from this game:
|3rd and 20|
|4th and 21|
|3rd and 18|
|4th and 24|
|2nd and 30|
|3rd and 29|
|4th and 48|
|3rd and 24|
They had three drives of more than 50 yards, two of which ended in FGs and the third in Gardner’s interception. For every other drive combined, UM ended with –7(!!!) yards of total offense. That’s right; with two weeks of preparation and countless promises to adapt, UM produced the worst offensive performance any of us will probably ever see out of the Wolverines. They punted or turned the ball over on downs with 4 or fewer plays 8 times this game. After Raymon Taylor’s interception of Cook late in the 3rd quarter, UM’s subsequent drive resulted in –21 yards of offense and, according to ESPN’s official boxscore, was the end of the game despite there being a whole quarter to go. And honestly, I don’t think that was a misprint.
That isn't an implosion; that's f'ing Katamari on a football field. And we've seen enough of that particular output the past couple of years for a lifetime.
Best: I still have no idea about this defense
I know the numbers weren’t pretty in the end, but MSU gained 153 of their 394 total yards of offense on those two final drives when the game was effectively over. They forced a punt or turnover on 6 other drives, and were victimized a bit by some fluky plays that could have ended drives. It was a competent defensive performance and, if the offense had been able to do virtually anything, probably would have been enough to win the game.
Mattison remains an enigma, and like Al Borges is working with a sub-optimal collection of players. Still, his insistence on 3-man rushes was alternately appropriate and maddening; there were a half-dozen instances where MSU WRs were wide open despite dedicating 8 players to defend against the pass. At the same time, it’s a unit that recorded 1 sack all game, and it came from a corner blitz where Ross and Avery met at the QB. Frank Clark played pretty well in run defense, recording 2.5 TFLs among his 9 tackles, but only hit the QB once and was generally unable to generate much in the way of sustained pressure. Black and Washington were quiet, and given Black’s abilities rushing the passer I would have liked to see him get a chance despite his obvious limitations against the run. Jake Ryan is working his way back in, but this remains a unit of B+ players, and that doesn’t hold up throughout the game.
Langford ended the day with 120 yards but 62 of those came on the last drive. I thought the linebackers played reasonably well, though again it was an ugly game where guys were getting open but Cook just missed them sometimes, while at other times he was able to loft a ball over 4 guys into the only open spot on the field.
Taylor had the lone interception on a nice read but was also the leading tackler with 12, which is okay if you are playing Indiana but not so good when Connor Cook is barely completing 50% of his passes. The rest of the secondary was alternately in great coverage and allowing Bennie Fowler to beat them down the field only to be overthrown because, again, Connor Cook. While some people will cry out for his removal as well, I’m willing to give him a bit more rope simply because I’ve seen strides made from this unit and, outside of IU, they have been above-average all year. Furthermore, Mattison has a track record far more accomplished than others on this staff, and given the recruits coming in it is hard to argue that the defense will not improve as the younger players mature.
I hated it when Mike Hart brought up familiar relations between the two schools, and since then it has only gotten more juvenile and asinine. I get poking fun at a rival, but one would hope that these two fanbases could have created something more creative, more thoughtful and meaningful than insults based on who got out of their metaphorical mother’s uterus first. It all came to a crescendo toward the end of Saturday’s game, when the Spartan faithful began chanting “little sister” in a tone that can best be described a mix between Nelson Muntz and Law & Order: SVU. In one sense it’s dumb to argue that fans have gone too far because of some chanting considering you could go about a billion times farther, but this also feels like a cycle that needs to be broken and not perpetuated by guys who weren’t even in HS when it started. People complain about the ND rivalry taking a hiatus and how that might diminish hostilities needlessly; I’d be fine if UM and MSU skipped a year or two so that both fandoms could look in the mirror and figure out something, anything better than these infantile sayings.
Best: MSU’s Defense is REALLY Good
I was a non-believer of sorts because I thought MSU hadn’t really played a good offense save ND and IU, but this is a terrifyingly-good defense that should pose major issues for OSU in the conference title game. Though it lacks elite athleticism, it plays with the type of precision and consistency you expect from a well-coached squad, and outside of a couple of plays UM could do absolutely nothing against it. It will look demonstrably different next year when many of its best players graduate and (I suspect) Narduzzi moves on, but it should remain a solid unit going forward as long as Dantonio is at the helm. That said…
Worst: Penalties were turned off, apparently
My gawd are those corners reliant on the referees not throwing flags. I get there is some physicality expected on passing routes, but there was not a single pass interference call (sorry Brian, you were off by 1) made despite Funchess and Gallon carrying corners down the field like they were f’ing Ents. I’m not saying the game would have been totally different with a couple of flags, but ND’s 4 PIs against MSU were a major reason they were able to move the ball semi-successfully down the field. Even my wife, who is 19-and-a-half months pregnant (perhaps slight exaggeration) thought it was pretty egregious, and she has a parasite inside her trying to steal all of her iron.
Worst: Poor Damn Devin and Fitz – The Duet
Gardner had a decent enough game when he wasn’t getting murdered by MSU’s pass rush, which recorded 7 sacks and 7 more hits. He completed about 52% of his passes for 210 yards, averaging about 7.8 ypa and having a couple of drops by his receivers halting drives. His rushing total was marred by losing 46 yards on sacks and that horrible snap, and the hits ultimately led to his removal with (one hopes) a relatively minor injury. Seeing him be lifted off the field, mud caked on his jersey while clearly wincing in pain, and then running another play was a bit heartbreaking, even though he nearly blew a third-down conversion by pulling up early. It wasn’t heroic, but anyone who questions whether or not this kid is trying his best out there needs to step away from the keyboard.
As for Fitz, what can you say? MSU has the best rushing defense in the country by a mile, and they showed it again this game. He only ran the ball 8 times, but limited the TFLs to one and generally took what the defense gave him. In a different game perhaps he could have produced better results, but I kind of doubt it. His senior year will likely be remembered for returning from a gruesome injury to play behind a young, under-performing line and getting beaten up in the process. As noted, I could have done without the public comments, but he’s clearly soldiering on and at this point, I don’t think you can expect much else from him.
Worst: What about Hoke?
I’ll keep this brief because this is totally speculative: he’s earned himself some leeway with the recruiting and the early wins, but there needs to be some changes made to this program going into next year. As noted earlier, I think the offensive system needs to be overhauled with a new coordinator, and that includes hiring a dedicated QB coach and not being so tied to a single vision despite mounting evidence it isn’t going to happen with the players available. The defense is a work in progress but one that feels like it has potential given continued recruiting and player maturation. Mattison is not above reproach, but enough smart people swear by him that there has to be something there. And outside of Ohio, this team still feels like the favorite against Iowa, NW, and Nebraska, and that’s 9 wins with a possible bowl win. Let’s not throw a parade or anything, but given how this season has unfolded it isn’t horrible. Plus, given what happened with RR, this program needs some stability even if it is somewhat mediocre.
Best: The Next Two Weeks
Looking at the schedule, what once looked like a hellish November now seems positively bearable. Nebraska can’t stop anyone, and NW can’t stop the saddest song from playing in an infinite loop. Neither is a gimme win, but I’d be a bit disappointed with even a split. Much will rely on Gardner being healthy and the offense continuing its Jekyll and Hyde home/road split, but luckily UM won’t have to play a team like MSU again this year, and just typing that makes me a little sadder. Ah well, I’ve gone this far.
Unlike last week, this is pretty positive. It was actually quite a bit harder to write, though, which makes me think that I’m more engaged when I’m in a bad mood. Let’s hope I’m not handed another opportunity to test that theory this season.
I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It's so fuckin' heroic. – George Carlin
Last week against PSU, the UM defense put forth an “heroic” effort to hold the Nittany Lions to 43 points over 4 OTs. It was the type of game where the obvious structural fissures and blatant player deficiencies you usually expect after giving up 43 points simply did not exist; you could pick at the seams but the whole tapestry did not unravel spectacularly.
Against Indiana, UM gave up 47 points in regulation, allowing 572 yards in total offense and 8 scoring drives that averaged 53 yards on only 5 plays per. On paper, it looked like most of the nightmare games UM had defensively under RR or any time they played a spread team like Oregon or Jarious Jackson-led Notre Dame under Carr. Just one of those games where the defense couldn’t get off the field to save its life, and the opposition was, at best, slightly inconvenienced on its way to the endzone.
But a funny thing happened on the way to eradication: the defense played well enough to win. In no way should that be construed as “great” or even “good” because, well, this is still a results-based sport and for all of the advanced metrics and acronyms, 7.5 yard per play (and closer to 8 if you factor out that last desperation drive) allowed isn’t going to cut it.
That said, this wasn’t a game where UM was outclassed or, really, even out-schemed. True, there were a couple of busted plays caused by the Hoosiers’ maddening tempo, including a 59-yarder to Latimer for the game’s first score as well as as couple of long completions in the 3rd quarter when Roberson found Stoner for a 42-yarder and Wynn Worst Waldo’ing for a TD. But in addition to the two interceptions recorded by the defense, there were probably 3-4 others that were close to being turnovers, including the 67 yarder by Hughes and a sequence in the 2nd quarter where Taylor (?) had a near-pick on Roberson that was followed by a crazy 33-yard TD to Wynn to pull IU within 7. As with last week’s post-Crisis final drive, those plays sometimes happen against you without rhyme or reason.
And after surrendering 23 points to IU in the 3rd quarter, the defense clamped down in the 4th, allowing only 7 points and forcing two turnovers (including a quick one after the Gardner fumble) as well as a game-ending sack by Frank Clark. For 3/4 of the game, the defense held IU to about a TD a quarter; a couple of breakdowns and luck made a 16-point win look closer than it was. And yes, saying a “couple of breakdowns” is like saying The Room had a “couple of issues” with editing and plot. Given all that, while I wouldn’t frame this game as a particularly heroic one by Mattison’s crew, it was at least “recklessly effective".
Best: The Only Defense is a Good Offense
I’ll get into my feelings about the offense later on (spoiler alert: MSU scored 42 points against IU in a single game!) but it must be said that the offense performed exactly the role it needed to in this game. IU’s offense is incredibly fast-paced and up-tempo; to steal a line from official MSU sponsor TapOut, IU tries to overwhelm the opposition with punches in bunches. Kevin Wilson, in-between absolutely eradicating Big Red gum and fuming during tense interviews with former UM offensive linemen, predicates a fast-strike offense that never wins the TOP battle because it doesn’t need to.
Early on, though, it seemed like the defense had IU basically figured out; UM forced a punt on 4 of the first 5 drives, including a couple of 3-and-outs. Of course, they did get tempo’d on a 4 play, 72 yard TD drive, but overall it seemed like IU’s offense was getting stymied by UM’s tight coverage and solid line play. At the same time, UM’s offense kept chugging along, scoring 4 TDs on their first 6 possessions and having a FG blocked because science.
But starting midway through the 2nd quarter all the way to the start of the 4th, IU started rolling with Tre Roberson and the defense had no real answer. All of a sudden, the defense couldn’t get off the field without giving up points, it seemed like IU had a 14 guys on every play, and my leftover Pad Thai tasted not like a bastardized version of a Bangkok dish but merely despair. UM’s only hope was to weather the storm by matching IU’s scoring barrage, one nutso drive at a time.
And that’s exactly what they did, with a couple of bumps along the way. Both fumbles were quickly rectified by Thomas Gordon INTs that UM was able to capitalize on, and the only other non-score on those 9 second-half possessions was a quick 3-and-out. There was no “field position battle” or alternative strategy by either offense; the goal was to score a touchdown on every drive, and while IU certainly was the faster squad out there, UM just kept plugging along at an efficient pace until IU’s mistakes caught up with them. The announcers characterized it as two boxers throwing haymakers; I thought it more like one of those 40-yard dash videos where a couple of players were superimposed on top of each other to distinguish individual progress during the sprint.
Both offenses were tenuously in competition with each other, but it felt more like a race to 60 points than anything resembling a pitched back-and-forth confrontation. It was admittedly somewhat surreal to watch, though in the joyous sense of seeing your team decimate an overmatched opponent and in the sense of, you know, the rest of the season.
Worst: The Shuffle
A football team is an ever-changing and evolving creature; due to injuries, performance, or purely feel, changes need to be made throughout the year to get as close to perfection as possible. With UM, the most significant and consistent changes have been made to the offensive line, which if last week’s special 27 for 27 didn’t drive the point home, is a bit in shambles. While the tackles are both experienced and will be playing in the NFL next year, the rest of the line is ludicrously young and/or inexperienced while also experiencing nearly week-by-week upheaval between the guards and center. Both Joe Burzynski and Erik Magnuson received their first starts of the year, replacing recent first-time starters Chris Bryant and Kyle Kallis, and once Burzynski went out due to injury Kyle Bosch stepped in as a true freshman.
While I do not doubt for a moment that these changes are due to both real and perceived lack of performance, one has to wonder if all of these changes are at least partially responsible for those deficiencies. The one thing you hear most often about an offensive line is that it benefits immensely from familiarity and maturation as a unit, that the more often these same 5 guys line up the better they’ll be as they learn the line calls, identify blocking assignments, and generally get a feel for how each other plays. But when you are replacing 3/5 of your line every couple of weeks with progressively less experienced players, while also installing a bunch of wonky-ish formations, you really shouldn’t be surprised if the same problems and holes keep reappearing. For example, on Fitz’s first TD on 4th and 1, the inside of the line was absolutely crushed; only be bouncing outside did Fitz find the endzone. Now, if that sounds familiar to you, welcome to the 2013-2014 Michigan Wolverines. Your pitchfork and Thundershirt is in the mail.
I know the stats say the line did a decent job (4.6 ypc on 54 carries) run-blocking and only gave up 2 sacks, but it again looked like a line in transition, which is not a positive sign 2/3 of the way into the season.
Best: Secret Santa
I’m not sure what the Secret Santa policy is on the team, but if I’m Jeremy Gallon I would give Devin Funchess all of the gift baskets given how his move to WR has opened up the field for Rocket Boots. While Funchess pulled in the lion’s share of the catches against Minny, Gallon has 21 catches for 464 yards and 3 TDs in the past two games and looks to be back to his All B1G-caliber mark most expected after the ND game.
Similarly, Devin Gardner has transformed from a terrifying pick-six machine into what most people expected when the year began: a dynamic playmaker who will make some bad throws but who can also pick you apart on the ground or in the air when the weapons around him are thoroughly deployed. Obviously the ultimate goal would be for Funchess to follow the Tyler Eifert model of terrifying TE/WR who can actually block on running plays, but so far his move to WR has not only led to great numbers for him (23.1 ypc and 3 TDs in the past 3 games, which would rank him #5 nationally if he kept it up for the year) but also a demonstrative improvement for the other players in the passing game.
Worst: Knowing is Half the Battle, Unless Said Battle is Against Indiana’s Defense
Jeremy Gallon started off UM’s second drive with a simple WR screen that he turned into a 70 yard completion. It was a great playcall at the time because the Indiana DBs had shifted their coverage distance from “city-sized” cushion to a “state-sized” one, and Gallon is hard enough to tackle when you are on top of him that giving him any space to move was an invitation for awesomeness. So a little later on, Devin Gardner took the snap, faked what I presume was a bubble screen, and handed off to Green for a nice gain. One can only presume at that moment, Heiko did something like this:
Certainly the liveblog exploded with a mixture of jubilation and confusion; happy that the playbook was opening up a bit but also wondering if either Al Borges was purposely trolling the fanbase or if he was seriously considering using gimmicky ideas like “misdirection” and “adapting to the defense.”
Unfortunately, I’ve seen this Al Borges before; it isn’t Good Borges or Bad Borges, but instead Irrelevant Borges because his playcalling was never tested by a competent defensive unit. Call me a Borges Denier, but I don’t even know if he was calling plays this week; a 14-year-old fan could have snuck into the booth and nobody thought to check.
IU couldn’t really stop the run, even when the offensive line brought out five Vuvuzelas and announced where they were going. Penetration and swarming sometimes led to stops, but even this offensive line was able to impose its will. Heck, the one TO by Fitz was due to Gardner trying a toss play that probably would have worked HAD THEY EVER PRACTICED IT. Even with this mishap, Fitz had his beast game of the year by a country mile, scoring 4 times while averaging 4.7 yards on 32 carries and a long of 27. And when a wide receiver sets a conference record while a QB sets both passing and total yardage records at the same school where Denard Robinson played Notre Dame and Illinois numerous times, you know the secondary was just escorting the ball to the receivers.
A win is a win, though, and 751 yards in total offense (on only 83 plays!) is 128 more yards given up against than any other competitor this season (Mizzou put up 623). Al Borges called a fine game and the offense executed immensely well. But the free-wheeling, spread-ish offense we saw by Borges isn’t going to stick around against the rest the conference slate, just like it didn’t against OSU last year, Iowa in 2011, or PSU this year. If anything, this game will simply be viewed as reinforcing the tendencies we’ve seen already, except that instead of averaging under a yard per carry IU’s derpitude resulted in a record-setting game. It remains an offense that screams ‘zig’ (Devin-centric attack with some up-tempo thrown in) while Borges remains determined to zag. It worked this week, but that’s the thing about Indiana: you only get to play them once.
Worst: Poor Secondary or
Best: Limited YACs?
If you haven’t gathered yet, I’m relatively positive about the defense this week, at least compared to my very lukewarm feelings about the offense. That doesn’t mean it was a great day by the unit, especially the secondary. As noted earlier, a couple of those long completions were due to dumb luck or great throws (Jourdan Lewis in particular was victimized by a great throw along the sideline), but IU clearly identified Raymon Taylor as a weak spot and attacked him mercilessly early on. He led the team with 4 pass breakups but also was in on 9 tackles, including 7 solo. By comparison, Countess was only responsible for 1 PBU and 3 tackles, and outside of a couple of plays seemed to keep pace. When one of your corners is seeing that much action, its usually not because he’s just flying all over the field, or at least not purposely doing so within the flow of the defense.
A number of IU’s long gains were because the secondary couldn’t get into position properly, either failing to align in the right coverage or simply trailing plays that started up before they were set. Outside of more preparation against this type of offense or “being better” I’m not sure how the unit can really improve on its performance, at least as currently constructed. Thomas Gordon’s two INTs definitely alleviate the sting a bit, though I’m guessing at least a couple of the long TDs were because either Gordon or Wilson failed to shift over to help out the DBs.
That said, there were relatively few blown plays resulting from missed tackles. The 67-yarder was somewhat due to a failure to tackle after the contested reception, and I’m sure I’m missing another couple plays, but usually a defender was there when the pass was completed to limit the damage. The longest run by a back all day (and apparently all year) was 20 yards, which is totally acceptable given the circumstances.
Best: I Must Be Drunk
This is apparently where I absolutely lose my mind and talk up the defense some more. Sure it was a cheap one at the end of the game, but Frank Clark had another sack and has 4.5 in 4 games. Given the speed by which IU gets the ball out, the two sacks recorded by the team are understandable. The line’s continued improvement along with Ryan’s return gives me hope that there might be some disruption forthcoming. And the linebackers, in particular Bolden, played reasonably well, though I’d trust Brian’s detailed analysis far more than my naked-eye observations. IU had some success running the ball, especially once Roberson took over, but it always felt limited, as if the defense was giving up 4-5 yards on the ground to protect against the pass. Probably something related to bending vs. breaking.
I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, and if you haven’t read it yet I won’t spoil it except to say it is absolutely like every other book he’s ever written. It’s the type of book wherein you’ll be annoyed that he is playing a little fast and loose with statistics, the underlying results of papers, and how a quasi-fictional narrative can be spun in a pop-sci book, but also glean enough interesting anecdotes and believable results that you’ll feel slightly smarter at your next soiree .
Personally, I enjoy the books but take them with a hefty grain of salt; I definitely wouldn’t use them as citations but I have looked into some of the topics more deeply after reading his takes. And one of the stronger takeaways from this book is that strengths and weaknesses are often subjective, based purely on the perceptions and biases of each party involved.
The titular tale of David and Goliath is turned on its head, as Gladwell discusses the fact that powerful but immobile Goliath (who likely was suffering from the same condition that afflicted people like Gheorghe Muresan and Andre the Giant) was no match for the fleet-footed David because the battlefield favored the swift artillery, only nobody had considered disrupting the paradigm until the stone fell the giant. He then pointed to numerous other examples in which the “underdog” military held its ground against a superior force by fighting in an atypical style, and only when these smaller forces adopted more “classical” styles that favored numerical advantage over other factors did they start to lose. In effect, he argues, the status quo works best when everyone agrees to abide by its terms; deviate even a bit and the inefficiencies are there for the taking.
Watching IU on offense, I saw how their up-tempo offense could flummox defenses for games; when the offense is already lined up mere seconds after the ball is placed, the defense has a very small window in which to react and respond. On offense, you only need that one point of failure, that one missed assignment or sloppy tackle, to score. Your line doesn’t have to be big and powerful, and your skill players can be pretty average, because you are maximizing the issues created by slow-reacting defenders getting into position.
But on defense, everyone really does need to be on the same page, or at least a reasonable facsimile. That’s why you typically see the most successful defenses against spread attacks be veteran-laden; you need kids who can react to the formations with minimal communication from the coaches. RR’s offenses ran into problems when the PSU’s, MSU’s, and OSU’s of the world could keep pace. And that points to the reality that defenses are far more reliant on overall talent than offense; you can disguise coverages and blitz from as many angles as you want, but you need guys who JUST MAKE PLAYS to keep you in the game. IU doesn’t have that, and that’s how a pretty average offense was able to drop 63 points on them. I shudder to think how IU would handle a team like themselves, but more talented; OkSt. or TT would run them off the field by halftime, and I don’t even think the NCAA would let them match up against Oregon. It’s why when the clearly-aroused Glen Mason spoke of IU’s youth on defense and the expected improvement it would see as it matured, I had to scoff a bit. For all of Indiana’s polish on offense, that defense hasn’t been “good” in decades, and no amount of “coaching them up” and father time will matter if the players just aren’t that talented.
I guess my point is that while I’m never going to be a big fan of Al Borges or the offensive philosophy of this team, I care far more about how this team’s defense evolves and grows over the next couple of years. It is undoubtedly cliche, but you have to be able to stop the other guy at least a couple of times in order to win, and a dominant defense with a competent-if-infuriating offense feels like a more efficient outfit than a hack-and-slash offense with a sieve in the front 7. Obviously one can dream of both, but the fact we have yet to really see a team pull it off makes me think it is harder than one thinks. Given the coaching staff and the philosophy they have installed, I’m bracing myself to see the status quo shaken up once or twice a season but only as a tease.
Bestest: Bouncing Baby Programming Note
This is probably more personal than many of you care to know, but BronxBlueWife and I are expecting our first mini Wolverine in the next week or so. Because I am a shot-caller, I’m hoping the baby arrives during the bye week and I’m at least semi-capable of scribbling down thoughts thru the end of the season. But if not, this might become a less-frequent weekly, at least until the sleep deprivation shifts from a sharp pain to a dull, perpetual one.
There are going to be references to wrestling here. I might link to some dumb Youtube clips. You probably won’t agree with everything I say. Even the positives are pretty negative. I don’t care; deal with it.
Best: Crown Their Ass!
"That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we're all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can even bring ourselves to even try to imagine..." -
This is UM football in 2013. It’s a collection of mismatched players and coaches groping in the dark at 2am, looking for a light switch that is connected to a single outlet with frayed wires that at any moment could spark and burn the whole house down. For 5 games, though, it was enough and UM kept on winning, despite enough “stirring” comebacks against mighty Akron and UConn that ESPN had a video montage queued up for late in the game. They probably should have lost a game before this one; now they have it out of the way so people can stop being teased with the least impressive run at perfection seen in Ann Arbor for decades. The house has officially burned down and now, perhaps, they can try to build something from the ashes.
UM is what we all thought they were; it just took the weirdest f’ing game to come to reality.
Supplementary Best: Now THAT’s MANBALL
And you know how people constantly argue over the meaning of MANBALL? Well, we just saw what it probably means to this staff and, really, throughout most UM history save for a divergence of sorts under RR. It’s about playing the percentages to an extent, but also cutting your playbook into a tiny sheet that says “Run dat ball dog!” and “Whatever, let Devin do something” once you get a 10-point lead. It means looking at your offensive line, seeing a bunch of first-year players and Schofield in the second half and figuring you might as well abandon the only positive running plays you have (read options and/or designed QB runs) for the same crappy -2-yard jabs into the line.
And perhaps most criminal of all, it’s relying on a college kicker, in a very hostile environment, to kick some game-winning FGs instead of trying for first downs in OT because you’re afraid of, I don’t know, turnovers or dragons or something equally asinine. I don’t care if Borges or Funk are around tomorrow, but this offensive staff has been stuck in this broken loop of playcalling for most of the year, and maybe a loss like this, the way it happened will snap them out of it. Or, you know…
For lack of a better term, once UM secured that 10-point lead Borges and Hoke adopted Heroball as the base offense: holding onto the ball until the last moment, telegraphing every play from a drastically shrunken playbook, and replacing any semblance of misdirection or creativity that got them that lead with predictable play-calling and the misguided hope that “everything will work out.” Well, it didn’t.
[Jump for Worst (ever).]
Quick programming note: I was traveling for the first half of this game, so outside of some radio coverage and phone updates I missed the first half. I did catch it on DVR, but skipped around when it became clear that about 1/3 of the half was Minny running a 16-play drive. I was back in the saddle for the second half.
I also apologize for the overly-effusive tone I’m going to take with this recap. After Akron and UConn, I’m just happy to write about a win that didn’t come down to the last drive. Please pick up your complimentary salt shakers before proceeding.
This is undoubtedly a pretty hacky way of saying this, but UM's 42-13 win against Minny was one that didn't feel nearly as one-sided as it looks on paper. On one hand, at no point did UM seem to be in danger of losing the contest; the only reason the score was so close at halftime was because UM had 4 drives that whole half and Minny wasted about 1/3 of it on a single TD drive that would have had the same effect as a Cialis for every announcer born between the years of 1930 and 1970. UM went the whole game without a TO, which is some type of record, and UM turned both Gopher TOs into 14 points. UM had 67 more yards, basically matched Minny on the ground, and averaged over 6.6 yards per play to Minny's 4.5 ypp. Outside of UTL II, this was the most complete performance by the team this season, even with the major caveat that Minnesota isn't really that good at football.
At the same time, unstoppable Minny Tebow Mitch Leidner averaged 6.9 ypa with a TD and added 66 yards on the ground, and Minnesota as a whole was able to move the ball semi-effectively all day; they drove deep into UM territory a couple of times in the 4th quarter but kicked FGs instead of TDs. Linebacker coverage continued to be an issue, as TE Maxx “The Extra ‘x’ is for Extra Max” Williams caught 5 passes for 57 yards and a TD and was consistently able to get separation. And two weeks after the defensive line seemingly awoke with 4 sacks against UConn, UM was limited to a single sack (by MGoForgottenSon Cam Gordon), and 3 QB hits.
Excuse me while I turn over this broken record, but the team remains a work in progress, and this most recent performance was a perfect embodiment its highlights as well as its lowlights. It remains a team that can beat a semi-competent football team by 29 with only 8 drives, but also let you see the numerous seams that can burst at any moment.
Best: “Inaccurate” Devin Gardner
I’ll get into the gong show that was the announcers in a bit, but Gardner had an incredibly efficient game throwing the ball. True, he was “bailed out” a couple of times by his receivers in the same way THAT EVERY QB SOMETIMES GETS BAILED OUT FNHJSADKFNSADKJFNSAD…sorry, got a little heated there. While he’s never going to have Taylor Martinez’s exquisite form on the long ball, Gardner still displayed a bit of happy feet that caused some balls to sail on him (a third-down incompletion that flew over Dileo’s head was pretty egregious) and/or hang up. [To his credit, he also had a beautiful throw to Funchess in the 4th quarter that set up a TD] Against a team with mediocre corners like the Gophers, his receivers were able to make adjustments and pull in catches reminiscent of Carr’s last game. Still, 13/17 for 235 and no turnovers is a certifiable revelation after the past couple of weeks, and credit to Borges for compressing the playbook a bit and running a fair number of 2 and semi-3 receiver plays so as to minimize the pressure Gardner was under. Listening on the radio, the announcers noted that UM’s protection schemes kept Devin clean for most of the game (only 1 sack), and Minnesota only hit him 2 other times. Just like I thought it was silly to read too much into his struggles the past couple of weeks, I’m not going to proclaim this performance a turning point in Gardner’s season, but one hopes that player and staff are getting more comfortable with each other and that results in the type of playcalling that maximizes the potential for an offense that has the ability to score on anyone.
Worst: Heel Announcers
There is a subset of visitors to this blog who find it inconceivable that people like professional wrestling, and references to it drive them to the comments to comment on how they gave up reading as soon as they saw it. So for those people, feel free to skip to the bottom (you’ll only miss one semi-logical diatribe and maybe 1/2 a joke).
Growing up, part of what made professional wrestling so much fun/infuriating to watch was the heel announcers like Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, Larry Zbyszko, and Jesse Ventura, who simultaneously trumped up the virtues of guys like “Ravishing” Rick Rude and Curt “Mr. Perfect” Henning while also pointing out the numerous logical inconsistencies that exist in the wrestling universe. [My favorite being Heenan pointing out the stupidity of fans chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” in a match between Canadian-born Bret Hart and kayfabe Japanese sumo wrestler Yokozuna.] In a medium that relies so heavily on arm-wavingly-obvious black and white knights, these announcers were the ultimate trolls on the mic, trying to convince 8-year-old me that a finger to the eye was accidental and manager interference didn’t occur while absolutely going (rightfully) ballistic when Hulk Hogan or Sting did the same thing and the crowd cheered.
Well, listening to this game on ESPN2 was about as much fun as listening to Michael Cole do anything during a match. By my rough calculations, the announcers droned on about Devin Gardner’s “poor” accuracy for 8.5 quarters of the game, and complained about a 30-yard completion to Gallon because it was behind him. Of course, later in the day the ESPN ticker pointed out that Gardner has the second-best QBR line of the day (94.2), and that included QBs who played against Temple, Georgia State, and Colorado. I know announcers wants to add drama to events that organically lack it, and Gardner clearly had some issue throwing the ball at times. But you could have left the door and some commentors from RCMB and Bucknuts could have taken a turn on the mic without people noticing a difference in quality. I suspect ESPN doesn’t care one bit, but when UM fans are clamoring for Spielman (who is fantastic) and Mason or Herbstreit (less so), you know you’re having troubles in the booth.
After finally conceding that Devin Funchess is mostly an oversized WR and not much of a TE, he exploded for a 7/151/1 TD line and showed just so scary he can be during the conference slate. He definitely needs to become at least a competent blocker to assure his time on the field, but his frying pan-sized hands and superior speed destroyed a Minnesota secondary has had a rough go of it already this year. Seeing how well Indiana cut up the PSU secondary this week, one can only hope that this type of performances by Funchess (and hopefully the rest of the receiving core) will continue.
Best: Offensive Line Optimism++
So yeah, I’m not an offensive line guru, and as noted above there was definitely a focus on increased protection, but it sure felt like the changes to the offensive line were for the positive. Glasgow handled the snapping duties pretty well, with only one exchange issue I noticed, and the amount of inside penetration seemed markedly down from the past couple of weeks. Bryant didn’t break anything, and Borges moved Jake Lewan around quite a bit to help establish the run, particularly at the start of both halves. While the stats were still unimpressive overall (3.3 ypc), Fitz was able to average 4.6 ypc and, more importantly, only had 1 negative run. Considering about a quarter of his runs against Akron resulted in negative yardage, this can only be considered a massive improvement. Just as important, the running performance was generated about as “organically” as you can expect given the personnel, with Devin only running 7 times for 17 yards (including the one sack) and a TD. Again, it is only one week, but the offensive line play was demonstrably better than the past couple of weeks, and even if that only grades out to average I’ll take it.
Best: So That’s What Linebackers Do
In the linebacker section of HTTV, Brian and co. were effusive about this unit being a strength of the defense even before Taylor Ryan returns from injury. It’s a unit with established players, some real depth, and the most likely place to see the words “heady”, “gritty”, and “disruptive”. But for the first 4 weeks of the season, it was a unit that seemed a bit out of place, facing quick-striking passing attacks that picked away at coverages and limited Mattison’s ability to unleash his second-wave rushers from the second line. But in this game, Minnesota seemed more than willing to test out the front seven early on, and even with some minor breakdowns I thought they acquitted themselves well. Morgan and Ross combined for 19 tackles, including 10 solo, and also recovered a fumble. Beyer added 4 more solo tackles, and as noted earlier Gordon picked up the one sack on the day. Coverage remains an issue that, frankly, may just be a weakness that won’t disappear without turnover and maturation, but overall it was a good day by a unit that was playing left-handed for large portions of the season.
Supplementary Best: Man in Black
(I know that’s super corny. Deal with it).
Special kudos should go out to Jibreel Black, who forced a fumble and who seemed to hold his own against a determined Minnesota offensive line. He’ll never be a great defensive tackle, but his speed inside has been a pleasant surprise this year, and as a long-time fan from back in the RR years I’m happy he’s having a good final season. I’m also less down on the defensive line in general despite limited pressure because Minnesota’s offensive philosophy was clearly designed to not force Leidner to hold the ball for long, and perhaps my expectations have been ratcheted down enough such that this felt like a competent performance. So, yea?
Worst: You can love your knowledge-All the things you learned in college
You know you can't go on kicking yourself
Until you’re more sore and you can never be warm.
And through the darkest hurts of the MRI's
That eats away as if the sun burst from the sky.
Due to my extreme Alt-Nation-y musical preferences, I’m not one to usually talk about my favorite bands because, well, I’ve seen High Fidelity and am totally fine being a square. But one of my favorite songs is College by Rogue Wave, a song seemingly crafted from the leftover crumbs of Simon and Garfunkel’s I Am a Rock. It’s seemingly-depressing lyrics about the largely-immutable characteristics of people and the cracks in even the most cultivated veneers are dressed up in catchy beats and and clean melodies. It’s either one of those songs where an artist experiments with the genre and listener’s expectations to craft something memorable, or they decided they had some lyrics and melody and what the hell, let’s throw them together and see what happens.
So what does this have to do with Michigan football? Well, my initial take was in reference to the still-undisclosed (at the time of this post) injury suffered by Ondre Pipkins late in the game, a game that was well in hand and that came, seemingly, due to an innocuous collision. Shortly thereafter, Kyle Kallis also went down with a less-serious injury, but still a reminder that injuries can happen at any time. Given UM’s shallow depth at certain positions, injuries take on greater significant and, unsurprisingly, a vocal group of fans tend to emerge decrying the “negligent” nature of leaving guys out there when the outcome is decided. I was going to argue that (putting on Herm Edwards hat) football is a violent, unpredictable game, the minute you play not to get hurt, that’s the minute you are most vulnerable, so players and coaches are hard-wired to suppress those concerns whenever possible. Not that it was requested or even necessary, but I was going to call for the exoneration of the coaching staff with any injuries that might come from this game, and for others to not worry about it.
Of course, that’s a bunch of crap. Not the part about the coaches and injuries – that’s the nature of the sport and it certainly wasn’t abnormal to leave in some players even with the game decided, especially when the limited depth means you only have a couple of players who could conceivably play those downs anyway. No, my issue with this initial take was the tone, that I was somehow clear-eyed and objectively viewing the proceedings without a gnawing, festering sense of doubt and dread lurking just below the surface. For the first time in what felt like eons (or, if you are a Gregorian calendar fan, 3 weeks), the team was playing pretty well in all three facets, and so ofcourse important people started to get hurt against freaking Minnesota. This may be one of the less impressive 5-0 outfits you’ll see in football, but it is still an undefeated team and as such my illogical fandom expects this team to go 13-0 every year. Injuries aren’t supposed to happen, and when they do all of those lost games and missed opportunities because Henne can’t move his shoulder and Antonio Bass tears up his knee come rushing back. Ugly wins sting more than blowout losses, and the Horror and the last play of the Alamo Bowl run on infinite loops in my brain. One should never stop, for it is bat country.
In my day-to-day operations I consider myself pretty even-keel and thoughtful, an “educated” man with an appropriate worldview, capable of understanding that two teams matriculating a piece of leather up and down a field doesn’t mean much compared to wars, disease, economic collapse, and the rest of the human condition’s underbelly. But every Saturday in the fall, I devolve into the type of guy who watches youtube clips of famous motivational speeches from movies, who cries out for every phantom hold and missed pass interference, who only knows that the other team is full of cheaters, thugs, and idiots, and who wants nothing more than a victory and a “Hail to the Victors” as a nightcap. I love my admittedly one-sided relationship with UM and its football team, but it has definitely helped to expose the inner lunatic that resides in me (and I presume in a significant portion of its fandom).
Worst: Big Turrible
By gawd was that a depressing weekend in conference football outside of the UM game. Michigan State and Iowa rock-fought to a 26-14 final that was every bit as painful as it sounds, and Nebraska beat another one of those schools from the Great Plains that feels like it was made up by a video game’s random-name generator, but not before giving up 17 first-quarter points. Indiana pantsed PSU, proving that neither team is particularly good at defense but at least IU can score, and gave UM fans hopes of a nice 3-week lead-up to the first meaningful game of the conference slate in East Lansing. And to top it off, NW totally unexpectedly and without precedent blew a late lead to OSU, giving us all another week of undefeated talk out of Columbus for what may be the least impressive 18-0 run in the history of college football. I know people continue to question how good UM is, and I guess the answer is “not great, but have you seen these other guys?” No teams other than Clemson, Stanford, and Oregon have really looked dominant all year (apologies to FSU and Louisville), but even the best teams in this conference look a clear step or two behind the leaders in the other AQ conferences besides the AAC. On one hand it means UM will probably finish with a better record than I initially expected, but on the other hand it portends a pretty ugly bowl season.
Due to time constraints and the fact that broken records sound even worse the second time around, I promise this post will be considerably abbreviated compared to earlier entries. To offset what I can only imagine will be a massive downgrade in creativity and humor, I will employ the time-honored and totally not schmaltzy “theme” for this week’s synopsis. I leave it to the reader to determine just what that through line is.
Worst: Ruff Offense
Let me set the stage for you: In a flurry to end the 3rd quarter, UM finished off an epic 75-yard drive with Toussaint’s 35-yard TD run, cutting UConn’s lead to 21-14 (!). The defense then weathered a couple of early completions to force UConn into a long FG attempt, which they missed. So UM took over, down 7 with the ball and driving to start the 4th quarter. A personal foul call on UConn set the Wolverines up on the 31 yard line, and it looked like the team was finally starting to find its “white people dancing at a wedding”-level rhythm offensively.*
On the first play, Al Borges looked into the BAD (Burn Another Down) part of the playbook and called a Fitz run that I can only imagine ended with him running into 1 or more offensive linemen’s posteriors 3 yards in the backfield and scampering forward for no gain. (Yes, this is foreshadowing). On second down, UConn’s totally unstoppable 4-man rush got pressure up the middle and flushed Gardner to the right side, where he held onto the ball while the 14-year-old controlling him kept pressing the stiff-arm and spin buttons instead of throwing the ball away, resulting in a 3rd and 17. The next play, at this point either a designed run or a de-facto run considering both the pressure Gardner was under and his clear discomfort in throwing the ball deep, resulting in a 15-yard pickup and 4 and 2 at the UConn 23.
Down 7 and with no promise that the offense would be that close to scoring again, Brady Hoke left the offense out there. As people noted in the liveblog, if UM isn’t able to get two measly yards against UConn, then so be it. After a Husky TO to think it over (I’m sure the conversation went along the lines of “easily dispatch of the offensive lineman in front of you and tackle the guy with the ball, fine gentlemen” because that seemed to be all UConn defenders needed to know on this night and apparently every conversation in my head is sponsored by Foppish Dandys), the playcall was the most obvious QB keeper possible, which still nearly worked except Devin fumbled the ball near the first-down marker and recovered about a foot and a half short. Turnover on downs, cats went running, beers were spilled, various furniture was kicked, etc.
If there was a better microcosm of UM’s offense the past couple of weeks, I’d like to see it. Against Notre Dame, I compared UM’s attack to a stacked Madden offense and wondered if it was the best/most dynamic of the last 15 years. In the last two games, against two of the worst defenses statistically in the FBS, UM has had 25 meaningful drives and recorded 7 TDs versus 9 TOs, including 2 that were returned for TDs by the opposition. It is an offense in free-fall, unable to really do anything particularly well outside of letting Devin run for his life or test Jeremy Gallon’s ability to enter inner orbit by throwing at the garden gnome standing on top of his helmet. I’ll get into more detail about the various faces of the offense below, but this display was actually more disheartening than against Akron simply because the last game felt like it could be chalked up to under-preparedness and/or lackadaisical play; a week later it sure seemed like UM was trying to get yardage and UConn would have none of it.
* Full disclosure: I’m a pretty stereotypical white guy, and my wedding (despite having a pretty kick-ass hora in this Gentile’s opinion), would have probably been a decent backdrop for a Dave Chappelle bit.
Worst: Stop digging!
Remember when Devin Gardner was spinning away from trouble and scampering for first downs, throwing bullets while under pressure, or calmly throwing the ball out of bounds when, heaven forbid, he was flushed from the pocket? Yeah, those were the days…of early September.
Last year, one of the things this blog and others raved about Devin was his field vision and willingness to keep looking downfield, trying to make a play with either his arm or his legs, unafraid to throw the ball out of bounds Now, every time he feels pressure (read: virtually every time he steps back to pass), he’s spinning around aimlessly or immediately tucking the ball and taking a loss even when he is a decent subway ride from the pocket. On the last drive of the 1st quarter, Gardner took a 16-yard loss scrambling around the field, never once seemingly contemplating throwing the ball away. Though he had thrown an INT on the last drive, it was this play that seemed the far more onerous one, portending a remarkably frustrating outing for a player that was seemingly exceeding the massive hype he had coming into the season. He went from being the best QB in the conference not backing up Braxton Miller to leading the nation in INTs (and I presume TOs though I don’t have that stat in front of me), and being one of the top 30 scoring players in the conference based on points scored for the other team.
Most of those turnovers are the result of simply trying to do too much: throwing across his body while being chased, trying to thread a ball through 3 defenders, lobbing bombs that come up short or are off the mark, failing to protect the ball because he is trying to twist, juke, or stretch for a couple more yards. And all this adds up to ever-deeper holes that UM has to ever-more-desperately try to climb out of. Down 3 late to Akron after seemingly having the game in hand entering the 4th quarter mushroomed into being down 14 to UConn midway into the 3rd quarter. While this phenomenon is certainly not solely due to Gardner’s play, he remains the focal point of a sputtering unit that must return to at least competent form if this team stands any chance in this division, let alone against some high-profile bowl opponent in the future.
Best: Just Roll with It
So for the first time all season, someone other than Gardner broke 100 yards rushing AND 5 ypc. It wasn’t pretty by any stretch, as Fitz had 12 of his 14 runs go for 3 yards or less, including a couple of times where he received the ball effectively off Miller’s ass as he was driven yards into the backfield. It remains very feast-and-famine with him lugging the ball, with about 30% of his 120 yards coming on the long TD run to halve the deficit in the 3rd quarter. Though the team as a whole failed to break 4 yards per carry, some of that can be attributed to some ill-timed runs by Gardner that resulted in lost yardage or minimal gain. And yes, I recognize just how poor the UConn defense was coming into the game; I woke up this morning muttering “Towson” and cursing the liveblog for reminding me of it, though it should be noted that the Tigers are 4-0 and have been obliterating teams so far this season.
For better or for worse, though, this is probably the best fans can hope for this outfit during the conference slate: a depressing number of minimal gains punctuated by some massive runs from Gardner as well as Fitz when he is able to make the first 2 or 3 guys miss. It will obviously be imperative for the line and TEs to cut down on holding penalties and other self-inflicted wounds, and someone needs to send whatever football-related methodone is required to wean Borges off his addiction to inside “power” runs, but I thought Fitz ran better in that second half (81 yards and 2 TDs with only 1 negative run and a couple rushes for no gain), and combined with Gardner’s mobility (provided he HOLDS ONTO THE DAMN BALL!) could provide a reasonably approximation to the rushing attack from 2011.
I do expect that some of the freshmen will see more time after the bye week, but I find it telling that Smith only played on special teams and Green didn’t touch the ball once all game. Minny’s highly-ranked, if lightly-tested, rushing defense should be a decent barometer as to whether this was a return of sorts for the running game or baseless optimism.
Worst: Now It’s Just Embarrassing
And you thought it couldn’t get worst than last week against Akron for this offensive line? Well, look what just happened, strawperson who watches UM football and thinks things can’t get any worse. UM’s line got served* by a unit that came into the game without a sack and 6 TFL’s (they record 3 and 10, respectively, against the Wolverines), and added 3 more QB hits. And beyond the obvious stats, there were numerous times when 3 and 4-man rushes were either driving Gardner from the pocket or forcing Fitz to bounce to the outside on runs. It was a dominating performance the likes of which people expected from Notre Dame’s NFL-stacked line, not the ramshackle one in Storrs.
While I want to believe that there will be changes made to the line during the bye week, what troubles me is that outside of Bryant at guard, I’m not sure who one can reasonably expect to step in and be an upgrade over the players already logging the reps. I mean, the guys out there won whatever amounted to “competitions” for these spots going into the season; to expect someone to come out of the woodworks (beyond major position shifts) seems like a pipedream. There should be some natural improvements just through familiarity and experience, especially at RG with Kallis, but it will fall on Borges and Funk to figure out a workable solution with the pieces they have on the field, a solution significantly better than the product that’s be trotted out there so far.
* In the same vein as my complaints about Varsity Blues movie logic issues, how did the the officials of the dancing competition at the end of You Got Served allow two teams team up, plus add about 10 new members, prior to the finals? Perhaps they were blinded by Steve Harvey’s teeth.
Meh: Air Dud
I’m breaking out the rare “Meh” when it comes to the receivers this game. Gardner was a mess, completing less than 50% of his passes and throwing 2 INTs. He locked onto Gallon a couple of times, one leading to the first INT, and was bouncing or sailing balls to open receivers throughout the game. At first blush I thought the receivers and ends were having trouble getting open, but on a couple of those tuck-and-runs in the second half it looked like Gardner ran through his progressions in about half a second and, either because of real or perceived pressure, just took off and ran the ball. This unit remains distressingly shallow in consistent playmakers (basically Gallon and that’s it), but there is only so much they can do when the defense is able to get pressure and stop the run without giving up coverage. As Chris Spielman (*shudder*) accurately pointed out, UConn didn’t respect UM’s running game and, thus, stayed back in coverage and really limited what UM’s offense could do throwing the ball. Given the fact that the Huskies were breaking in basically a whole new secondary, this was an opportunity for the receivers to reestablish some consistency we saw earlier in the season, and opportunity that they (get ready for the pun) dropped.
Best: Release the Chess-hound!
I do want to point out that Jehu Chesson again showed flashes of the playmaker this team desperately needs to complement Gallon and Dileo. I know he over-ran the ball on Gardner’s second INT and under-ran a probably TD after he beat the UConn coverage by a step in the 4th quarter, but on both plays you saw the speed people raved about. Both misplays seem to be due as much to inexperience as anything else, as freshmen coming from programs where QB play was sub-optimal are want to struggle with ball tracking in the air. Still, I expect him to continue to make strides in the passing game as the season progresses.
Also, he absolutely trucked UConn punt returners on two plays, including forcing a fumble that was recovered by the Huskies in that first half. He’s clearly not afraid of contact and, more importantly, is big enough to actually do something about it. Given the continuing struggles of the TEs to block in the running game, this physicality needs to continue.
Best: Here they come!
Only because of the offensive line’s continued struggles has the defensive line’s woes been (slightly) overlooked, but in this game they finally were able to generate both a consistent pass rush as well as a stout-ish run defense. UConn averaged under 2 ypc and under 5 ypa if you ignore the 26-yard completion on 4th-and-30 to end the game, and UM recorded 4 sacks to go along with 4 additional TFLs. Frank Clark recorded 2 of those sacks to go along with 5 tackles total, and Jibreel continued his solid season by recording half a sack to go along with 6 tackles and consistently getting penetration inside. Black will never be your prototypical tackle, and he probably won’t be able to hold up against bruising lines dedicated to running the ball (i.e. Minny in two weeks), but the “poor man’s Brandon Graham” analogies don’t seem off.
The secondary remains a work in progress, but it held up reasonably well. They were bailed out a bit by Geremy Davis’s overturned TD catch in the end zone, but (I believe) that was followed up by the punting fiasco that led to UConn’s last score. The LB’s in coverage remain troubling (I know, except for that one really GOOD thing I detail below), and guys seemed to find a way to get open up the seams way more frequently than UM’s guys do.
It wasn’t a dominant performance by any means, but it was a positive sign after not being able to generate anything resembling a defense in the second half last week against Akron. UConn barely broke 200 yards in total offense, only one drive longer than 40 yards, and 14 of those 21 points were either on the offense or special teams. Let’s hope this is a return of the Swag.
Best: Air Bud II: Morgan’s Electric Boogaloo
“Woodsonian” is both a strong and made-up word, but Morgan’s game-changing INT was a thing of beauty and really seemed to energize the team. I know there are different schools of thought regarding momentum, and I’m generally not a believer in any long-term effect, but I do think that it can exist within a small context, such as a single game or even just a half. UM looked horrible for most of the game offensively, and UConn had just stuffed Gardner’s 4-down conversion attempt. The defense had been on the field for large swaths of the game, and any score by UConn probably would have meant the game. So when Morgan skied for that pick and returned it to the 12, UM had new life. On the next play, Fitz took the ball outside and scored the tying TD. From that point on, UConn recorded 1 first down and 26 total yards on 2 drives, basically all those yards coming on a meaningless completion on 4th down. He didn’t “save” the season by any stretch, but it was the play of the game.
Worst: No More Norfleeting?
I’m definitely keeping my head on a swivel watching out for the banhammer on this one, but I’m starting to think the potential of Norfleet may never live up to the actual product on the field. He has seemingly lost the faith of the coaching staff on punt returns after muffing a couple in the past weeks, and while he remains a kickoff threat he’s rarely used in the offense except on obvious running plays and (maybe) a couple of passing routes when the team goes empty backfield. He remains very fast but has a season long of 15 yards as a receiver and one 38-yard run against CMU. He also has a penchant for getting tripped up on contact, and while that isn’t unexpected for such a small guy, it also doesn’t warrant much in the way of additional playing time.
Worst: Hold Onto the Damn Ball!
I noted this already, but UM lost the turnover battle 5 to 1, and while the Jones kicking the ball on punt coverage was just poor luck (it seemed like either a lack of communication or awareness that led to him being so close), the other 4 TOs were absolutely in the flow of the offense. Cut that number in half and I think UM wins this comfortably; they’ve been “lucky” the past couple of weeks that the opponents haven’t been able to really capitalize. I’m not saying Hoke needs to break out the duct tape, but the ball needs to stop hitting the ground or landing in other teams’ hands.
On the positive side, Wile booted 5 punts for an average of 42 yards, and Uconn nearly returned the punt turnover favor on Chesson’s big hit. So after last week’s Shankapalooza, it was nice to see UM even out the field position battle. Plus, Gibbons hit another FG, adding his name to another record.
Worst: Seriously, State of Connecticut?
I commented on the liveblog that apparently the University of Connecticut paid for the new seats they added to the stadium by diverting pay from groundskeeping, because that field was horrible. I’ve seen moderately-sized HSes with better turf, and it clearly affected both teams throughout the game. Coupled with the fact that the stadium is across from a Cabela’s and is 30 miles(!!) away from the main campus, and you can see why everyone except Connecticut’s AD was pushing for the game to be played at a bigger, better stadium. I get not every school will have the type of tradition and facilities as UM, but this is (in theory) the major state school in one of the richest states in the US; they should be able to provide a better gameday experience.
Best: Bye Week! Let’s All Get Excited!
Next week being a bye means I can finally get back to working…I mean doing work around the house…I mean spending more time with BronxBlueWife…I mean playing GTA V. Yeah, that sounds right.
I know you feel, John…
Worst: Totally Meta
To let you in a bit on how the sausage is made with one of these posts, I usually sit down with my laptop during the game and play around in the liveblog while taking some really cursory notes. While I’m sure I could figure out how to watch lineplay and defensive adjustments intricately in order to make really astute observations about particular players, there are lots of people here at MGoBlog who do a great job with that level of detail and, frankly, I doubt I’d be able to add much. No, the Best and Worst is all about a layman’s observations of a game, with (I hope) a bit of humor, some fun long-form ideas, and insufferable references to wrestlers and 90’s television shows.
Well, usually my notes take on a bit of a narrative as a game progresses; I inevitably start ordering comments into Offense, Defense, Special Teams, Coaching, etc. buckets, so by the end I’ve got my talking points, as they are, laid out. Given the opponent, I figured they’d be succinct and pretty general; it’s hard to derive too much from a blowout.
Well, by the last 4 minutes of the game, my notes spanned 2 pages typed and, if my keyboard was both sentient and possessed the necessary funds to file documents with a court, would be Exhibit A of a battery suit brought against me. People joke about how typing “OMFG” or “ROFL” negates the emotion you are attempting to convey, like telling someone how funny something is instead of actually laughing. But part of the reason you use these shorthands, though, is because “nfsakjf528095353u55b25jewrnijrggrehjigh3u04u-421” followed by your dog fleeing the room is hard to convey in words. So yeah, based on my notes…
Worst: Goliath has Fans Too
I’m usually not one to complain too much about announcers except if they go full Spielman and openly root for one team over the other, but the announcers were extremely excited about the possibility of Akron beating UM. And that got me thinking; seemingly everyone loves the David vs. Goliath matchups that end with David victorious. At first blush, it totally makes sense; David represents the everyman, overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds with character, ingenuity, and guile. To root for David is to root for the human spirit and the impossible dream. Rooting for Goliath is like rooting for the house in blackjack.
But here’s the thing; being “Goliath” is not free of context, nor is it purely a “you vs. them” dynamic wherein everyone agrees how the story should end. In other words, Goliath has fans too, and in most cases they don’t view themselves as the bully, the victor, the unstoppable force OR the immovable object. Goliath is just a guy who is blessed with some physical advantages that he honed with rigorous training and passionate loyalty to a cause. In the eyes of Goliath, he’s entering into fair combat against another warrior who just happens to be smaller than him and who wields a slingshot. He’s not Razor Ramon or Vince McMahon, “heels” personified who want nothing more than to ruin the face’s day. No, He’s not the “bad guy”, unless “being tall and strong” and winning most of the time are dastardly traits. He is the Big Bad because the only lens used to view him is as the seemingly unattainable or antithesis model, the personification of David’s shortcomings.
So saying you love David vs. Goliath games is really saying you like to see the big guy lose not necessarily because you have a rooting interest in David or against Goliath, but because you don’t want to be reminded that not everyone has David’s problems. On some level, you hold Goliath’s strengths and accomplishments against him, believing something must be cosmically wrong to explain his winning ways, and that a loss will somehow right this off-kilter universe.
But that really isn’t fair to either party; Akron is just a bad FBS program trying to find its footing and UM is the winningest program in college football history. UM has all of those wins because, for most of its existence, it has fielded talented, well-coached teams that beat other ones on the football field. Akron, not so much, but that isn’t because of something UM did. And, humorously, the tables are turned in the other “football”: Akron has been one of the best college soccer teams for years now while UM is the “upstart” that scored a major 1-0 upset over the Zips a couple of years ago during an otherwise poor season.
I’d say millions of people partook in today’s game in some way (live, TV, radio, internet, etc.), and a significant number of them are probably fans of UM football. They wanted to see UM win for any number of reasons, and few if any thought Akron winning would be a “good thing”. Russians certainly didn’t think losing to the US at the Olympics was a good idea, nor are Phi Slamma Jamma fans clamoring for Lorenzo Charles (RIP) memorial jerseys, and I’m guessing Lloyd Carr isn’t sending Armanti Edwards holiday cards. Had Akron pulled off the win, it would have been heralded as a huge upset both for the year as well as historically, and people who “like” upsets would have another moment to cheer about. But for the fans of Goliath, David is just the guy who got lucky, and no amount of culturally-endorsed schadenfreude will change that.
Today’s game ended with Goliath winning, though it was obviously closer than expected. The narrative is that Akron gave UM all they could handle, and that in a game of inches UM got lucky that Akron came up a bit short. But it was a game that both teams had a chance to win, and this time Goliath benefitted from a missed opportunity; history hasn’t always been so kind. I’m certainly not going to complain.
Worst: It’s a Win? (as said in the voice of Ron Burgundy)
Yeah, I’m not going to be one of those people who says it would have been a better “learning experience” if they had lost; I’m a results-based grader so a win is always better than a loss. That said, this is up there with narrowly beating Indiana and Illinois under RR and a turrible 10-7 win against 5-6 Utah in 2002 (a game I attended and apparently blocked from my memory until now). And unlike those games where you could at least point to one element of the performance being a positive, it isn’t really hypoerbole or “ESPN talking head”-ole to say UM was beat in all three phases of the game.
Best: It’s a Win
But it’s a victory for UM, and 3-0 is 3-0. Just ask MSU, whose offense finally eclipsed the defense is scoring 3 games into the season. Teams have bad games, and for all of the hell the players are likely to have rain down on them by the coaching staff this week, it would be immensely worse if Saturday’s game had ended with an “L” on the schedule. This game probably ratchets down the expectations a notch if you saw UM as a top-5 outfit, but otherwise it was a close shave for a team with top-15 talent. Given the number of massive upsets this year, it could have been far worse.
I know the Internet is the ultimate echo chamber for cynicism, and this blog’s particular composition only accentuates that property, but just like was a need to pump the brakes a bit after the ND game, this game doesn’t not necessarily mean you need to stock your panic room quite yet.
Best: I don’t want…your life!
One of the more underrated moments in Varsity Blues is the “hungover” game played by the West Canaan Coyotes after Mox, Tweeder, Billy Bob, Wendell, and Lance spent a night at the Landing Strip Gentleman’s Club*. Hungover and clearly off their game, they lose in embarrassing fashion and Bud Kilmer turns to threatening Mox about his scholarship to Brown if he doesn’t shape up and fall in line.
In no way am I insinuating that UM’s play against Akron was caused by every starter heading off to Deja Vu in Ypsi Thursday night, but it clearly looked like a team that was out of sorts from the outset. UM did force a 3-and-out on Akron’s first drive and followed it up with the long TD by Funchess, but for most of that first half the offense looked lost and the defense held tough but couldn’t generate much of a pass rush. And once the 2nd half began and Akron made some adjustments offensively, the defense struggled to keep them off the field. Plus, Gibbons missed his first kick since Purdue and Matt Wile shanked a couple of punts, resulting in an average of 33 yards per kick despite “booming” one 54 yards. As a couple of people noted (including Ace), if it was against any other team but Akron, UM probably would have been run off the field. But still, just a disorienting performance.
Of course, Notre Dame also had a pretty off performance against Purdue, so who knows where everyone was last night.
* I know this is saying a great deal in a movie where James Van Der Beek is a Texas QB, literally every play is either a bone-shattering tackle or a 50-yard TD (seriously, watch the clip and you’ll see 4-5 NFL Blitz-style flying tackles), and a HS team is allowed to basically coach itself once Jon Voight leaves at halftime – you’ll notice no assistant coaches take over or are even on the screen, but the most unbelievable part of that movie is a HS health teacher moonlighting as a stripper in a city of, oh, 10,000 people in Texas and NOBODY notices until some HS kids see her act. I mean, that club looked packed on (I’m guessing) a weekday night, and early on the movie establishes that Miss Davis must be making decent money from her dancing in order to afford a Mustang convertible, so it is clearly a popular place. Yet her double life remains a mystery both before and after this night. Simply unbelievable.
UM averaged 5.5 ypc* and 8.3 ypa** while holding the Zips to 3.6 ypc*** and 6.3 ypa**** which look good on paper, but as the astute reader might have picked up, those little *’s aren’t just looking for a party to crash; they are massive caveats. First the rushing: Gardner averaged 10.3 ypc on his 103 yards, showcasing the game-breaking speed that can turn a collapsing pocket into a 36 yard TD. Fitz recorded 71 more yards on 19 carries, but didn’t crack 4 ypc against the #80 rushing defense in the country. And while I initially thought he was the recipient of some bad luck out there due to penalties on runs, the only one apparently was a holding penalty by Gallon on a 3-yarder. Of his 19 carries, 7 were for losses and 8 were for minimal gain (though one was the TD). He recorded 65 yards on 4 other carries, and added a nice 27 yard reception to goose the numbers up a bit. On most runs he was engulfed in the backfield or had trouble locating holes either because they weren’t there or a momentary hesitation closed them too quickly. I’ll get into my feelings about the line play later, but this was not a banner day for a guy who has played reasonably well this year given the obvious issues in front of him.
As for that 8.3 ypa, that is .7 ypa below Akron’s 114th-ranked pass defense, and came with a 53% completion perctange and 3 INTs, including a horrible screen-ish pass that was returned for a TD. Nobody other than Gallon caught more than 2 passes, and while Funchess had a nice day on paper with a TD and 65 yards on his two catches, one was a 48-yard TD run that was aided by some poor angles and tackling by Akron, a theme they continued on Chesson’s only catch (and first of his career) on the day, a 33-yard TD where he was pinballed toward the endzone by an Akron defender. Criminally underused Drew Dileo was held without a catch, so hopefully this week Brian will be able to release that particular Kraken.
The defense did marginally better, holding Akron to about their season average rushing and about a yard less passing, but those numbers were put up against UCF and the zombified remains of the 4th President of the United States, er, eponymously-named FCS James Madison University. And Akron had 4 drives longer than 45 yards, including two 11-play drives that ended with a TD and the final drive, as well as a 5-play drive that ended with Wilson’s INT in the endzone. UM could not get Akron off the field in the 4th, including giving up a number of long completions and “they only need 5 yards for the first down, let’s give the slot receiver a 10-yard cushion” plays.
So yeah, statistics should be trusted only as far as they can be thrown, which against UM’s defense today is apparently both quite far and with minimal coverage.
Okay, okay, that’s a little mean. But it was pretty bad out there.
Worst: Push it!
So you know how earlier I mentioned that statistics sometimes lie? Well, a big reason why UM’s running game struggled was the continued inability of the offensive line to consistently block for anyone. Against Akron, Fitz had 15 carries that resulted in either lost yardage or minimal gains, and a significant number of them were because one or more Akron defenders were in the backfield rather quickly. It remains a team that is strong on the edges (though both Lewan and Schofield missed a couple of blocks) and “maturing” or “weak” (depending on your viewpoint) in the middle. Akron didn’t seem like it was doing anything special defensively, yet they always seemed to have the number’s advantage at the point of attack. And while they only recorded a single sack, Gardner was harassed most of the day by the line without excessive use of blitzes or disguised coverages. I’m not expecting major changes on the line next week, but this is a team that can’t consistently get 4-5 yards a pop on the ground without the QB getting involved, and that is not a sustainable situation during the conference season unless Devin remains healthy throughout, which would be a minor miracle.
As for the defensive line, to say the “Right to Rush 4” mantra needs to be redefined would be an understatement. A unit with a decent amount of hype heading into the season failed to register a sack on 49 attempts, though the defense was credited with 8 QB hits. Still, it took an all-out blitz to get pressure on the QB to end the game (reminiscent of the Points-a-Palooza some years back), and when your undersized tackle (Black) is your most consistent pass rusher against a MAC team, that isn’t good news. I guess the jury is still out on Frank Clark, but at this point the judge expects to hear a verdict by the end of lunch. It certainly didn’t help that Mattison seemed reticent about using more than 4 linemen to get pressure, and as a couple of people noted in the Liveblog the stunting was glaringly obvious, but again you shouldn’t have to overly gameplan for a team coming off a 1-11 season.
Best: Times are Changing
Now, I know I just spent a couple of sections dumping on Akron and minimizing their influence on today, but they deserve quite a bit of credit for playing UM to a standstill. Maybe 25-30 years teams like Akron are just happy to be playing in the Big House and are overwhelmed by the moment, but in today’s college football ecosystem everybody believes his team can beat anyone else. For even with Akron’s fallow history, it is still an FBS team with D1 players on it, and given the exposure and resources available to virtually all such programs nobody should be surprised they didn’t just wilt as soon as The Victors played. Terry Bowden may have looked like he ate his daddy Bobby before the game, but he’s still got a career record of 142-75-2 (including 47-17-1 while at Auburn), and certainly knows how to beat teams like UM. They played solid, largely mistake-free football and took advantage of UM’s miscues. They played like a major college football team, and this game should be yet another reminder that “MACrifices” isn’t a reality in today’s football landscape.
Best: Tackling, and the Lack Thereof (part deux)
Last week I mentioned how refreshing it was seeing the other team (in that case, ND) miss some crucial tackles while UM largely wrapped up quickly. Well, count both Funchess’s and Chesson’s TDs as beneficiaries of some dodgy tackling by the Zips. By comparison, UM typically tackled guys at contact, though Jourdan Lewis had a pretty bad “tackle” of Pohl as he rushed for a first down late in the game. There were also the coverage issues with the corners and linebackers, especially in the middle of the field where D’Orazio was seemingly open all day. This definitely felt like a gameplan limitation, at least initially, but it was troubling that late in the game receivers were able to get open in the secondary with players trailing them by 2-3 yards.
Worst: Hitting Reset
Last week I waxed poetically about Gardner being a modern-day unstoppable video game QB, UM’s answer to Michael Vick circa Madden 2004. He was like UTG Trevor Siemian crossed with a mongoose, and it was glorious. Like Vick in the game, it just felt unfair to have him on your team, and to talk about him in front of your vanquished opponent is to welcome scorn and possibly some shoving.
Well, against Akron people saw the other side of the videogame analogy: when the computer “cheats” and everything that could possibly go wrong does. Suddenly, your all-world QB can’t complete a pass except to the other team, your RB can’t get a yard beyond the line of scrimmage, you are getting called for penalties on any positive play, and even digital Texas’s GERG thinks you are playing too soft defensively. By the time a defensive end houses an interception off a screen pass, you’re diving for the reset button while cursing Alan Turing and his stupid face.
Of course, in real life that’s just the third quarter of the game, and you still have to watch and hope that somehow, someway your team figures it all out enough to pull out a victory. Against Akron, Gardner and the offense did just enough in the end for the win, and on a seemingly snakebitten game they can lick their wounds and give it another shot.
Best: Even YMRMFSPA had Bad Games
So the Vince Young analogies have been trotted out for Devin since his game against Northwestern, and with his improvisational skills, strong arm, and galloping strides it is hard not to see a bit of the college star in him. Unfortunately, Gardner also showed the same characteristics that drove Texas fans crazy early on in Young’s career, with 4 turnovers, including a TaINT, and some happy feet that resulted in missed receptions and poor throws. If you check out Young’s gamelog from his first full season, you’ll see the same tantalizing mix of promise and growing pains: 5 TDs against no turnovers against Texas Tech following 8/23 for 86 yards against Oklahoma and 3/9 with 2INTs against Missouri. After those games, people we calling for Chance Mock to play at QB, and if that name doesn’t ring a bell it’s because he didn’t do anything to make people forget about Young. People in A2 forget this because of the game Young had against the Wolverines in the Rose Bowl, but Young finished with a 12:11 ratio on the season and had some tough performances even in wins. The next year he emerged as a breakthrough player and led Texas to the title.
I’m not saying Gardner is going to do that, but this game was a reminder of how fickle and infuriating the maturation process can be at times, and that the same player can have a stinker like today AND a performance against ND without there being anything wrong with him. I suspect he’ll play better next week, but regardless of his performance it won’t change this past game or how the future plays out. Every game is another data point, and sometimes you don’t realize there are outliers until time and distance it provides have given you some perception. Gardner wasn’t a Heisman winner after last week and he’s not a bum after this one, but instead a work in progress like the rest of the team.
I’m wheeling out my extra-tall soapbox now, so if you don’t want to hear my complain about fandom in general and UM followers in particular, feel free to skip to the next section.
What has always driven me crazy about the fandom in sports is the moralizing and dime-store psychoanalysis people place on players’ motivations. A team plays well and people lionize the “heart” shown by the winners while questioning that of the loser. Every down and distance becomes a Greek tragedy played out with a pigskin, and we want to equate higher meaning with 3rd-down conversions and missed blocks. But that’s the thing – it’s just a game, and teams win and lose, players play well or poorly, for reasons that have nothing to do with their moral fiber or ability to “lead” men.
Both during and after the game, there was a contingent of fans who tried to make the game a referendum on these players. They questioned the leadership displayed by Taylor Lewan apparently not getting the line “up” to block, as if Kalis, Miller, and Glasgow would have held their blocks if only they had cared more. Gardner threw INTs not because he made a bad read or had a bit of bad luck, but because he wasn’t a leader out there and his receivers didn’t have confidence in him. And in the postgame, when both Lewan and Gardner said they promised a better effort next week, people on the blog questioned their motives and suggested they had “heard this before” and UM still lost, proving that fans shouldn’t operate heavy machinery following a game because their blindness will undoubtedly cause accidents.
Sports were oftentimes used as stand-ins for battle both in real life as well as in narrative devices; we speak of “warriors of the gridiron” and its bond with iconography of good vs. evil and right vs. wrong is hard to ignore. But in the end, sport is just a game, with winners and losers according to the rules of the contest. To try to derive some greater meaning from it, to look deep into a man’s soul on a 3-yard run at the end of the game and hope to identify his humanity, is a foolish exercise. I know people will continue to act this way long after I’m cold and in the ground, but I still hope that one day sports will be treated as the athletic contests they are, not the day of reckoning some yearn for them to embody.
Best: Quick Hits
A couple of points that aren’t really worth their own sections:
- I thought the secondary played okay, though the middle of the field was open seemingly for days at a time. They also seemed to line up yards off receivers that didn’t seem able to really beat them in a race. And to Akron’s credit, a couple of long receptions were the result of good throws; the one where I believe Taylor was beaten down the sideline in the 4th quarter by Smith was a great throw as much as any failure by the coverage. That said, surprised Lewis got the nod over Stribling out there, especially given the size differences.
- Al Borges called a decent enough game in my opinion, though he seemed afraid of running the veer too much early on even though Akron had no answer. The inability of the line to run block certainly didn’t help; when UM needed yards late in the game they ran directly behind Lewan, which was obviously a positive but not great news for your inside running game.
- I remain puzzled that Hoke did not go for it at 4-and-1 on UM’s 45 early on in the 4th quarter. The numbers say putning is the right call, but one yard with Gardner in the gun seems quite doable. I’m not a big fan of “momentum”, but getting a yard there gives UM a fresh set of downs and doesn’t put the ball on the foot of your admittedly-skittish punter who proceeded to shank the ball anyway. Plus, I believe this was right after Akron nearly blocked the last punt.
- Norfleet appears to have lost return privileges at least on punts, with Dileo back there in the second half. That feels about right; I know Norfleet has shown great potential, but he continues to make the routine catches scary and still doesn’t seem to have a great sense of how to handle returns. And with Dileo back there, it allowed the BTN announcers to talk about how he can run in space. Because if there is one element of Dileo’s game we can ALL agree on, it is his blazing speed in space.
Best: Release the Hounds
The good news is that the UConn Huskies are an absolute tire-fire and UM should be rather motivated heading into the Cabella’s parking lot er Husky Stadium next week. I hope for everyone’s sake it is a short game and next week’s recap is “Best: Everything.”