in town for free camps
So I missed most of this game initially; had family over and only saw parts of the 3rd quarter live while the rest was from a DVR re-watch. Thus, I ignored most of the commentary, stopping only to watch Marshall Mathers absolutely trolling Musberger and Herbie in the booth. That was good fun.
One advantage of DVR’ing the game and watching it largely divorced from the in-the-moment fandom gives you a different appreciation for what happened on a per-play basis but, more importantly, the overall game. It gave me a better appreciation of the big-picture elements of the game, even though at times my notes read like an obsessive serial killer - “Gallon, Gallon, GALLON!”
But enough of that; on to the Best and Worst of the Indiana Fig Things
Best: We’re the one without a Goatee
This is the second result from Google Image for “Doppelganger”
Going into this game, one of the major talking points was whether or not UM-ND was a “rivalry”, with Brian Kelly originally seeing it as a regional tilt and then, once he consulted with Grimace, Tinky Winky, and Count Von Count in the only way I presume they know how, he “clarified” that it was a great and historic one. Various people, mostly on the internet where one is duty-bound to correct all falsehoods, chimed in and waged digital battle until everyone exhaustively looked around and realized anyone not associated with either team viewed this as nothing more than the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers arguing over whose pile of money was best for Scrooge McDuck’ing.
It’s this blue-bloodedness that has always separated ND from the rest of UM’s traditional rivals. MSU is the half-brother who always wants to be taken seriously but inevitably shows up to social events slightly drunk with an un-tucked shirt and some “crazy” story about last weekend that inevitably ends with him in handcuffs and urine-soaked pants. OSU has all of the trappings of a worthy adversary, with a veneer of tradition, success, and bright future that is undeniable. Yet, once you dig a bit deeper you realize he holds his 1st-grade “Super Bee” spelling award far too close to this heart and his treasured idols are jerks, crooks, and hypocrites. They might have success and a hatred will always burn true with them, but the nouveau rich odor is hard to shake. PSU, Nebraska, and Wisconsin keep trying to catch your eye and are always ready to throw down, but it feels forced and unstable as they undergo major changes or fail to live up to their own expectations.
Notre Dame, though, has always felt like a perfect foil for UM, and that’s what renders outside perceptions irrelevant. #1 and #3 in all-time wins, #1 and #2 in Win Percentage, and #1 and #1a in ISOS Percentage (Inflated Sense of Self). Both fanbases see themselves as football royalty but with a healthy perception of their team’s current state, which is absolutely true until any additional evidence is provided that contradicts that ideal. We both scoff at meltdowns from fans of other teams yet conveniently ignore our own, constantly question the integrity of other coaches and teams even though both our programs have had issues in the past, and (like all fans) perpetuate the narrative in which our team is always the noble protagonist valiantly overcoming the dark underbelly of the sport. And yes, both UM and ND have been at the forefront at key moments in the sport’s evolution. Yet in the end, we’re just like everyone else except we won a bunch of games back when guys wore leather helmets and the forward pass was an innovation that kept players from killing each other.
So in a way, Notre Dame and Michigan are destined to always be rivals even when they don’t meet on the field; we both strive to obtain the superiority and nonpareil that only one can possess. But at the same time, the institutions are so similar both on and off the field that to truly “hate” the other is nothing more than an exercise of self-flagellation. And yes, this whole section is one shining example; gotta love the hypocrisy.
Best: The Madden Offense lives!
At this point I imagine the Ven diagram of “People who read MGoBlog diaries” and “People who have played computer football” resembles a perfect solar eclipse, so if you only think of John Madden as a character played by Frank Caliendo, I guess just move on to the next section.
For everyone else, though, UM’s offensive playcalling reminded me of those great 16-bit and early PlayStation/XBox/N64 Madden games where they hadn’t quite figured out how to properly balance player attributes when it came to speedy QBs and so you could call a shotgun pass on basically every down with impunity (I know most people consider Michael Vick circa 2001-2004 as the apex mobile QB in video games, but picking the Eagles with Randall Cunningham or the 49ers with Steve Young led to untold fights when I was in junior high). With one of those guys in the backfield, every pass carried the real possibility of a QB run with about a 1% chance that the defense could stop you before 5-6 yards. And on the off chance that you found yourself on 3rd/4th-and-long, just call for a Hail Mary/4 Verts and you could either throw the ball into the tiniest of windows because your QB had a Howitzer or, to be extra dickish, run for the first while juking every LB about 15 times. A mobile QB was about as close to god mode as one could get on the football field.
Well, with Devin Gardner at QB and Borges overjoyed with a QB who isn’t afraid to scramble sensibly (sorry Denard), UM is trotting out the type of offense that seems largely immune to defensive adjustments. Whereas in years past a collapsing pocket was almost immediately followed by a tuck-and-run, Gardner seems more than happy to move around while his WRs work to get open. And if that doesn’t happen quickly enough, or if there are yards available on the ground, Gardner just gallops 2-3 yards a stride and can pick it up efficiently. A couple of times Gardner basically rolled out, outran with ease an ND player barreling down on him from the edge, and calmly surveyed the field looking for an open Gallon, Dileo, Funchess, basically anyone. At least once he just kept running; other times he’d throw for the first. You didn’t often see that type of play last year, or at least run so easily and successfully, and it seems like it will be a staple in UM’s offense going forward until such time as any defense (i.e. MSU and that’s about it) shows the ability to slow it down.
Best: It’s Super Effective
To start the season, UM has had 22 meaningful drives (i.e. not at the end of the half and/or running out the clock). Of those, they’ve scored TDs on 12 of those drives and another 3 have ended with FGs. Four ended with INTs and they punted 3 other times. 15/22 drives have ended with points (and if you want to be snarky, a 16th ended with points for the opposition), and I think most fans would concur that the offense remains a work in progress. The redzone offense was even better, going 4-4 TDs against ND and, outside of an iffy pass interference on the last scoring drive, with relative ease. It’s getting to the point that once UM gets into the endzone, teams might as well let them score and at least conserve the clock.
Gallon was the shiniest of shiny stars along with Gardner, reeling in 3 TDs and 184 yards while consistently abusing anyone Notre Dame put on him. I know he was a little banged up at the end, but it didn’t look too serious and I can only imagine the holy hell these two will drop on teams like UConn and Iowa going forward.
This is the most effective offense I’ve ever seen at UM during the life of my fandom, and it should only improve as the offensive line gels more and Gardner starts to look for receivers other than Gallon and Dileo more consistently. Unfortunately…
Worst: QB Vision Cone still in experimental mode
I’m sure some of this was dictated by defensive alignments inside as well as comfort on the part of Gardner, but Butt and Funchess, those wacky police partners trying to catch criminals on the mean streets of Ann Arbor if they don’t tackle each other first, coming this fall to Fxx, er, accounted for only 36 yards on 5 catches, which follows up on a 3 for 55 game against CMU that was goosed considerably by Funchess’s 36-yard scamper. They are young and should improve as the season comes along (especially Butt, who appeared to drop and/or run out of position for a couple of balls), but Gardner’s passing cone seems a bit skewed toward Dileo and Gallon and that could very well catch up to him as teams adjust or, knock on wood, one of them gets hurt. For as much as I love the idea of this team’s leading receivers both being eligible for the Pomeroy Award, that would feel like a massive waste of talent at other positions on the field and, frankly, counter-productive to this team’s maturation this year and beyond.
As ST3 noted in the always-excellent Inside the Boxscore, the running game was surprisingly competent, posting 166 yards and 11 first downs against an extremely active and talented (if young at LB) Notre Dame front 7. While Gardner’s legs remained a key player in the ground game, Fitz’s consistent inside running and ability to eke out positive yards at the edges is a major reason why this offense remains so dangerous despite less-than-spectacular numbers on the stat sheet.
I know some people like to joke about “Manball” as 3 yards and a cloud of dust, but to me it has always meant establishing the threat of a running game at least in name, if not in production, so as to open the playbook and keep the opposition off-balance. It’s why people smarter than me become giddy when Kalis and Glasgow successfully pull on a 5-yard run on 1st down, or Fitz is able to run around Lewan’s block on Shempo for the first. It’s about drawing a line here, and saying only your guys shall go further.
What makes this type of manball different than Iowa’s, for example, is that the playcalling followed suit, with Gardner throwing more in shorter yardage situations and even on first down when ND’s LBs started to cheat up. If the mantra of the defensive line is the Right to Rush 4, then Fitz deserves to wear an “Earning Those 4” shirt every day. He’s seemingly come all the way back from that horrible day against Iowa, and he’s a major catalyst for this team’s hot start.
Best: Tackling, and the Lack Thereof
If you didn’t have some weird flashbacks of GERG’s defenses during Gallon’s triple-bounce TD rumble in the first quarter, you are either 4 years old or have repressed those memories until such time as you need to punch aliens. After years of seeing missed arm tackles turning into long TDs, it was refreshing to watch UM put on a veritable tackling clinic against Notre Dame. Even on completed passes, Countess or Taylor was a half-step away and tackling almost immediately, and in the 4th quarter I remember at least one WR screen being blown up by a hard-charging Taylor (?) running through the block to hit the receiver immediately. The LBs and safeties kept everything in front of them and limited yards after contact. Rees finished with 314 yards and 2 TDs, but it took 51 attempts and he only averaged 6.1 ypa along with 2 INTs. He dinked-and-dunked his way down the fields at time (his long completion was only 23 yards), but even his completions were into small windows that his receivers had to earn. Jones, Niklas, and Daniels are dangerous skill-position players, and it felt like the secondary played them to a stand-still.
The defense remains a work-in-progress, and it still feels like a year or two away from truly disruptive, but against a ND offense with some real blue-chip players offensively they more than held their own. I think every UM fan will count that as a win.
Worst: Missing the Firestarter
This probably doesn’t need repeating, but Jake MF Ryan’s presence is sorely missed on this team when it comes to putting pressure on opposing QBs. It’s been two games, and while the CMU numbers weren’t as bad as I originally thought, I remain skeptical that the front four will be able to consistently generate a pass rush against a competent line. Mattison’s defense only sacked Rees once, hit him another time, and only infrequently made him uncomfortable throwing the ball; when they did, it either ended with a poor throw or one of his two INTs. With 51 attempts, including a large number when ND was clearly going to pass, you’d expect much more presence by a defense that seems best suited for pining its ears back and delay-blitzing the crap out of you.
With Ryan back I presume some of those blitzes will hit home, and that should open up rushing lanes for the likes of Clark. Luckily there doesn’t appear to be another team coming up before Ryan’s return that should pose much of a threat passing the ball (MAC! Big East!, 1/4 Big Ten!), but this remains the one noticeable deficiency in an otherwise-stout defensive unit.
Best: Michigan Speed!!!
Just something I loved – on a stretch play early in the first quarter, ND’s RB (I think it was Carlisle) kept trying to string out the play toward the sideline; each time he took a step toward the line, though, another UM player was there to drive him back. The athleticism on the defensive side of the ball, while objectively not much different than during the 90’s/00’s heyday, still feels warp-speed compared to those RR defenses that couldn’t hold the edge to save their lives. Part is probably coaching and positioning, but this defense just flashes to the ball the way good defenses are supposed to, and it is a sight to watch.
Best: Give Him All the Women
Brendan Gibbons was 2/2 this game, breaking the consecutive FG record previously held by Remy Hamilton. if Mattison has the Heininger Certainty Principle, then somebody needs to figure out what Hoke did to Brendan and call it the Gibbons Kicking Catalyst. I know kicking is notoriously wonky and unpredictable, but from 1/5 to the record book is amazing. And Matt Wile deserves continued kudos for booming kickoffs into the end zones as needed.
Worst: Obligatory Wrestling Reference
I’m really not trying to make this a common theme, but it just feels right in this context. As always, feel free to skip this section if you don’t care about professional wrestling.
One of the common tropes in professional wrestling history is to exaggerated ethnicity and treat it as “character” for a grappler. That’s why for years you had evil Kozlovs, the “Polish Hammer” Ivan Putski, dozens of Samoans, the Mexicools (with real riding lawnmower!), Junkyard Dogs, and every other horrible stereotype you can think of perpetrated . While there is undoubtedly a racist component to it, a major reason promoters highlight a wrestler’s ethnicity is because it eliminates the need for nuance and “plays” to everyone regardless of their viewpoint; you boo or cheer because you are told to associate some characteristic with good or bad guys regardless of who they actually are; the man is basically just laundry.
For obvious reasons, this characterization has become less common in recent years, as even the most generic of wrestlers are at least given a chance to be more than their last name or nation of origin. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they must turn their back completely on their heritage; in fact, many of them incorporate parts into their persona. The most prominent example I can think of in recent years is Sheamus, an Irish-born grappler with a red shock of hair, alabaster skin, and pun-approved move names like the Brogue Kick, the High Cross, and the Irish Curse backbreaker. Outside of the ring he has a delightful Irish accent, seems to have a reasonable sense of humor, and can carry himself on the talk show circuit like a champ. In so many ways, he should be loved.
But here’s the thing; if you aren’t a little kid, you probably think Sheamus is kind of a dick. His attempts at humor you mind grating, especially when they inevitably take on sophomoric qualities such as stealing a Mexican aristocrat’s car, eating Mexican food in it, and then pooping in it. He’s rather predictable in the ring, and while the higher-ups tried pushing him as a main-eventer, that fizzled out when people realized he just wasn’t that compelling a figure. He’s kind of a relic of a bygone era, and decades ago probably would have been one of the biggest draws in the Northeast and Midwest.
Notre Dame is the Sheamus of college football, and it’s not just because of the obvious Irish connection. Both seem like they should be a bigger deal than they are, and despite WWE/OWMiM’s (Old White Men in Media’s) attempts to convince us otherwise, that connection to the past isn’t strong enough to ignore the mediocrity of the present. And, I guess, both retain the possibility for rebirth with the proper tweaking; Notre Dame under Kelly look to be returning to at least national competitiveness, and Sheamus is probably a new entrance song and catch phrase from main-eventing a PPV. But right now, the luck of the Irish isn’t smiling on her favored sons.
Best: The Signs!
You guys posted some great ones and it was fun to see them IRL. My two favorite remain “Play like your girlfriend’s are real today” and “Where was the ‘Luck of the Irish’ during the potato famine?” I can only imagine what we’ll see next week with Alabama and A&M.
This will be a bit of an abbreviated post because, well, 59-9 tells a pretty compelling story. Sure, I will try to tease out some larger trends from the game, but the biggest takeaway is that UM destroyed a MAC team in the way you expect the winningest program in college football history to do so, and nobody really seemed that surprised. Given the relative struggles the past half-dozen years, that’s the biggest Best I can point out.
Best: The least sexy 59 points you’ll ever see
As Brian noted in his “Five Questions, Five Answers” preview, the Al Borges offense we’re going to see is not the spread that was trotted out under RR and limped along until the end of the Denard era. While I take issue with the “wrong side of history” supposition of this decision, I agree with Brian that Borges’s offense will remain dynamic and creative enough that the ghost of Mike Debord will stay in his comically 90’s room for the foreseeable future.
That’s like, totally your opinion
But 52 points were scored by this offense without much in the way of trickeration or going for 2 points on the first two TDs, you twerp. It was an efficient, dominant performance with wrinkles here and there but also a consistent scheme that was frankly missing during the Transition. As Ace noted there are questions about the line, but Kalis MANBALLED a couple of guys and held up well; I expect Miller to struggle at times but should improve with more reps to at least competent. This offense will undoubtedly struggle at times when teams are able to collapse the inside of the line, and the WRs need to create more separation than they did today, but overall it felt like the type of performance one expected from this unit. It should be the best in the conference unless OSU figures out how to block people, and even then I think the plethora of backs and TEs will continue to keep Devin reasonably clean and away from too many hits running the ball.
Best: Who needs redshirts?
The usual suspects played – Morris, Smith, and Green on offense; Charlton and Thomas on defense. Not unexpected burning men like Gedeon, Butt, and Stribling also suited up, and while I’m a little annoyed if Gedeon only plays on special teams this year, you have to think the coaches like what he brings on defense to push him into a more prominent role. Lewis is a bit of a head scratcher, but Norfleet had some troubles early on with returns and Lewis is a shifty guy in space. But overall, I’m not a fan of redshirting except when the guy in question really wouldn’t help you (i.e. most linemen, small-ish WRs, anybody in the secondary unless they are unbelievable), and basically everyone who played acquitted himself well enough to warrant more playing time in some capacity.
So yeah, the defense looked REALLY fast out there. Thomas on the punt block practically yanked the ball out of the punter’s hands, and throughout the game CMU players were hit as soon as they touched the ball. Early on it seemed like Countess was playing off the WRs too much, but then every time the ball was sent their way he stuck the receiver almost immediately. Other than one or two plays toward the end, the secondary kept everyone in front of them and rarely did you see much separation. Under Hoke, it sometimes felt like Mattison and co. had to gameplan teams into spots to compensate for a lack of athleticism at certain positions; at least after today it looks like those limitations are disappearing quickly. It isn’t quite LSU/Alabama speedsters out there quite yet, but this is another check in the “good recruiting” checklist for this staff.
Worst: We can’t have nice things
Listen, I’m as neurotic and cynical as the next guy when it comes to sports, but at some point it just gets old. I will admit to being a bit down about the early play calling and will remain a Borges questioner until such time as I learn how college offenses work, but at some point the liveblog became one big bit*hing session+ once it was clear UM was going to run away with the game. All of a sudden you have people questioning Derrick Green’s ability to run through contact, Frank Clark’s inability to get to the QB (I will admit to being in this group initially), and every non-TD run or non-intercepted completion as proof that some component of the team wasn’t “working” or was a point of concern. The hive mind of the liveblogs can adopt misguided stances and I get that it shouldn’t be taken seriously, but the team just scored 59 points against a bowl team, held them to a couple of field goal attempts with 3(!) of 14 drives longer than 30 yards, and averaged 5.1 yards per carry and 10.5 yards per attempt. They played pretty well folks; let’s enjoy the win for at least a day before we all try to Gladwell our way through trends from one game.
+ I never understand *’ing out the vowel in a cuss word. I think we all know that “f*ck” doesn’t refer to one-time Tiger’s first basemen Robert Fick, yet everyone apparently thinks removing the ‘i’ in sh*t is going to throw everyone off the scent. Either blot out the whole word or leave it alone. /HOTSPORTSTAKE
Had 106 yards on 4 returns, and was a couple of broken tackles away from housing at least 1 of those returns. He also recorded 38 yards on his one run, and overall looked like a dynamic component of the offense. He’ll never be an every-down back and I doubt he’ll reach the heights of Breaston (who seemingly was both faster a bit more elusive in small spaces), but he gives this team a legitimate return man for the first time since, I don’t know, McGuffie, and the type of guy who can take those once-a-game Ronald Bellomy WR runs and make them work because the other team can’t immediately assume that’s why he’s on the field.
Worst: Out of Nowhere!
Fair warning: this section is going to be one big wrestling analogy. Since I was around 6 years old, I’ve been a huge fan of professional wrestling. I watch it on television, Hulu, and Youtube every chance I can. I once rented every Wrestlemania (9 of them at the time) and watched them straight, without blinking, and probably lost a gallon of water with the drool that fell from my mouth. I loved Jake Roberts and Damien so much I cried when Earthquake “squished” him during their feud. I was a little Hulkster, then a member of the Warrior nation, followed by a heartbroken Rocker fan (seeing Shawn kick Marty Jannetty and throw him through the barbershop window taught me to never trust anyone in a leather jacket). I was a fan of the Dangerous Alliance and marked out so hard when Stunning Steve became Stone Cold and ushered in the Attitude Era along with DX, the Rock and Sock Connection, Kurt Angle, and washed-up MMA guys like Tank Abbott and Ken Shamrock. Hogan creating the NWO with Kevin Nash and Scott Hall set the world on fire for a bit, and Goldberg speared anyone with a pulse into next Tuesday. TLC wasn’t a way to treat a lady or a TV channel with weird shows about future diabetes sufferers; it was a brutal contest with enough splintered tables and broken limbs to remind you how fragile the human body is. Innovators like Chris Jericho and Rey Mysterio showed you little guys could rise to the top, and Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit shed the “Vanilla Midgets” label to become champions even though their careers ended suddenly (and in Benoit’s case, horribly). Even with the relatively fallow period that followed Brock Lesnar’s departure to NFL training camps and, ultimately, the UFC, I still enjoyed watching Batista, JBL, Orton, John Cena, and the rest soldier on. And with the ascension of “Indy” guys likes CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, plus the healthy growth of the development system and the indy feds like ROH, PWG, CZW, and the like, it is a good time to be a fan.
Over this time, I’ve seen the medium evolve and grow, and mostly for the better. Guys train harder and take better care of their bodies, match quality is higher, and storytelling has evolved to the point where major sports blogs have writers dedicated to covering it. It isn’t necessarily still real to me, but I definitely see it maintaining a place in my sports life going forward.
One change I have noticed over the years, though, is the proliferation of “spontaneous” in-ring moments and moves that you just didn’t see back in the 80’s and early 90’s. It used to be when a guy was going to hit his “finisher”, he had some setup – Hogan gave you the big boot before running the ropes and dropping the leg; Ric Flair gave you the knee breaker and then actually had to lock in the figure-four; and even “quick hitters” like the Ultimate Warrior and Shawn Michaels still had some setup before they finished you off with their splash or superkick. But around the time Austin hit the scene, guys started in with the reversals and the quick finishers; Stunners to everyone, Diamond Cutters off chokeslams, Tombstones off cross bodies and Sweet Chin Musics off jumping attacks. Now every move was “out of nowhere”, culminating in Randy Orton RKO’ing literally everybody off ever-more convoluted triple-lindys. As Brandon Stroud of With Leather always laments, guys just need to stop jumping around Orton and they’ll win all the time.
So what’s my point? Well, one of the things that has changed about following college sports is that because of the multitude of mediums covering the games, you really aren’t “surprised” by anything before the teams step on the field. Sure, Gordon being suspended for the first game was relatively unknown, but even then there was a board post on the topic two hours before the game. I knew the vast majority of the depth chart weeks before it was released, heard the insider buzz about certain players stepping up while others floundered, and even knew the basic structure of the offense and defense, including quite a few wrinkles, despite the best attempts by the Fort to keep them under wraps. On one hand it makes fandom more engrossing and “fun” because my knowledge is more thorough and nuanced, but the “Christmas morning” feel of watching the team line up that first game is lost a bit when you’ve already read about the N64 and Easy-Bake oven in the nondescript box three weeks ago. And with all that information, expectations can explode to unreasonable levels; witness the post above with people complaining about the young running backs.
The inexorable march of progress is such that we’ll only get more insider information and in-depth analyses of players and recruits, and on the whole that is a positive for both fans and the game. To be a well-rounded fan, you need to read and keep up on your teams to an almost-unhealthy degree; otherwise you are basically Skip Bayless or Lou Holtz without the clothing budget. About the only time you can ever be surprised anymore is when you….
Best: Play the Game
For despite all of the predictions and charts, the acronyms and the tomes written about the game, nobody knows will happen during the game until the teams actually line up. Fitz looked great out there, making cuts and accelerating through holes opened up be a much-improved offensive line. Devin looked shaky earlier but played well in the end, accounting for over 200 yards in about 2.5 quarters of work. Morris, Green, and Smith all had their turns out there and showed promise. the depth on defense, previously a figment of the fevered imagination of our benevolent overlord, showed up in spades. Countess looked like the corner everyone expected last year before he was hurt, while Thomas, Wilson, Stribling, Morgan, Ross, and Gordon all stepped into more prominent roles and played well (I recognize Wilson blew at least one assignment). Even guys like Clark, whom I’m more down on than others, played reasonably well. I know it’s one game, but it was nice to be surprised by guys actually playing football in a game that mattered.
Worst: Big Ten!
Oh where to start. MSU struggled to move the ball against the other, other directional school last night, and no amount of BTN spit-shining will change that. As noted earlier, OSU went for 2 twice because (a) Meyer wanted to make a point, and (b) that point is that he is a *ick. And even with all of that early success, a 4-8 Buffalo team was touch-and-go with the #2 team in the country, at home, for most of the game. Illinois looked competent against Southern Illinois but still only won by 8, Cincy pounded Purdue by 35 as perennial Most Awesome Name candidate Munchie Legaux stood tall in the pocket. PSU held on against Syracuse but looked like it will be years until the effects of those sanctions allow them to regain their stronger position in the conference, and Wiscy ran over UMass like they always do against overmatched squads who are lactose intolerant. At least they can run the ball with James White. Oh yeah, and Iowa lost to NIU because of course they would. At time of this post teams like NW and Nebraska are still playing, but I doubt we’ll learn much about either team win or lose (though if they lose to Wyoming and/or Cal, I’m going to book my tickets for Indy tomorrow).
But overall, it was not a banner weekend for the conference. The Big 10 isn’t great at football outside of the top couple of teams; that’s been an annoying reality for a couple of years now. The conference isn’t dying or falling behind anyone not named the SEC, but the Big 2, Little 10 mantra is gaining traction every day, and I’m not seeing much evidence down the pipeline that it will change any time soon.
Best: UTL II
Hey, it might be fun…
What amazes me about this site is the amount of content posted during the dead of summer, when people should be, you know, outside and not worrying about the nickelback (NTN)* on passing downs. Mind you, I say this with 100% absolute love and appreciation, as it really makes those bathroom br…er, interminable time between seasons a bit more bearable. The only problem, if you’d call it that, is that with such great, consistent diarists like Mathlete, Six Zero, Seth, CRex, and LSAClassOf2000 (and I’m sure to be missing others, so my apologies in advance), it makes it tough for people without advanced knowledge of mathematics, drawing skills, or hilarious fish-out-of-water tales to think of anything useful to post. Luckily, I’m here to post random thoughts on football without any of those messy facts, charts, or thoughtful analysis that bogs down everyone else. But I will definitely make consistent references to late 80’s/early 90’s pop culture, because nothing draws eyeballs like Battletoads puns.
And let it be known that I have yet to receive my copy of HTTV (available now for ordering if you are a horrible person who didn’t love Brian enough to sponsor his Kickstarter because you spent all of your money on funding a Deathstar), so if anything happens to overlap that is purely coincidental. So no need for a spoiler alert, but perhaps a didn’t-mean-to-tap-into-the-hivemind-alert. Also, this is not exhaustive – I don’t have the knowledge of football that other writers here possess, so me saying “Lewan is really good and Mattison knows how to coach” isn’t going to be ground-breaking; I’m going for a “key points” approach here. So without further ado, I bring you a preseason Best and Worst for Michigan (and college in general) football in 2013.
* I’m not a fan of all Nickelback songs, but that is one awesome movie tie-in song!
Best: Finally the focus is on actual football
While it is undeniable that college sports drive a multi-billion-dollar industry (but don’t tell EA that), the actual seasons for football and basketball are about 4 months each, with only a bit of overlap. So after the first week of January and/or the first week of April, the “official” engine driving the gravy train for network and cable television, websites, merchandisers, etc. shuts down for about 8 months. Unfortunately, there are still 24 hours a day that need to be filled with something, whether it be talking heads arguing over “issues” and obscure hypotheticals, former athletes pontificating on the need to have “played the game” to really understand why throwing on 3rd-and-12 is the right call, or scanning the police blotter in every college town to see if the Ven diagram of college kids getting drunk and/or fighting and college football/basketball players intersects.
So when the football season ends, the focus immediately turns to NSD, wherein a bunch of grown men’s and women’s emotions wax and wane according to the whims of high-schoolers participating in very weird hat dances.
|One of these is awesome, one is insanely awesome, and one is Denard rocking a great look.|
March is dominated by commercials for Southwest Airlines and Capital One credit cards with a dusting of basketball sprinkled in, and just when that madness ends, we get inundated with draft combine reports and the respective NBA and NFL drafts. And as the weather gets warmer, you finally think “self, what else can they report about? Kids are not even in school; at most they will be some puff pieces about charity work and new coaches getting used to a particular school.” But no, you are instead bombarded with stories about kids slacking off, whether or not a former coach is somehow partially responsible for a suspected murderer because the Program actually happens IRL, and old men talking about “big changes” that will only make things more convoluted and disjointed as sports go full Voltron with super-conferences and paychecks.
I guess my point is that in a few short weeks, fans of college football will actually be able to celebrate the sport itself, even if the depressing accoutrement isn’t going anywhere. Those recruits will now be in the lineup (or at least at practice), the returning players will be settling into their roles, and all of the coach-speak/playbook prognostications/expectations will manifest themselves in an actual product on the field. The silly season is over; bring on the games.
Worst: Addition + Subtraction != Reality
One of the common refrains I’ve read recently about the upcoming season is the old “addition by subtraction” on offense as Gardner takes over for Robinson at QB. As the thinking goes, the loss of Robinson and his career 10,776 yards of offense will be mitigated by Devin’s superior throwing ability and a more balanced, Al Borges-friendly offensive system.
This phrase has always driven me crazy, if for no other reason than football doesn’t work like math. A football team is comprised of innumerable players, coaches, opponents, etc.; we’re talking thousands of meaningful variables. Change one and you might have a major effect on the system, but the far more likely outcome is that nothing demonstrably happens or, worse, the output is worse. And it’s this last scenario that really scares me about losing Denard and installing Devin at QB full-time.
Just because you’ll be able to shove a slightly less misshapen peg into an ever-changing hole doesn’t mean the entire enterprise, or even a component like the offense, will function better a year later. Other than Jeremy Gallon’s mountain goat imitation and The Threat keeping the chains moving, the passing attack is long on potential and short on real results (I believe Funchess will have a solid year catching the ball, but when you can’t block at UM you aren’t going to be on the field much). Fitz’s recovery sounds promising but will he be the guy who ran for 5.6 ypc in 2011 or struggled to break 4 in 2012? I don’t know, and while there is guru-approved talent in the backfield (Green and Smith) and is a position where young talent can flourish, nobody with shoelaces has been able to consistently gain yardage on the ground for years now. And while in years past defenses had to respect the ability of UM’s QB/RB/WR/braided decoy to bust a massive run, Devin isn’t that type of player and defenses will treat him (and by extension this offense) accordingly.
Of course, Devin isn’t the perfect Al Borges QB either, but in theory he’ll be better able to throw downfield accurately and COMPLETELY IGNORE ANY TYPE OF SCREEN PASSES, amongst other things. Call me skeptical, but I still see this offense living and dying with the line giving whoever lines up at RB the time and space necessary to get into the second level. Protecting Devin will definitely help as well, but he’s enough of an athlete to buy himself some time on obvious passing downs if necessary; limiting the number of times he lines needing 8+ yards for a first because they tried this twice would be great.
|Unleashing the dragon is not officially endorsed by Al Borges, but he’s not officially against it either.|
Best: The Flying V
One of my favorite movies growing up was D2: The Mighty Ducks, the sequel to, I don’t know, the Joshua Jackson vehicle The Mighty Ducks. It’s 100% crap if you watch it critically; rampant product placement, jingoism and mindless flag-waving up the wazoo, and the most lax enforcement of international junior hockey rules known to man (seriously, the team adds players to the squad midway through the tournament by signing them up after a street hockey game). But by gawd, 13-year-old me loved this movie so much, and mostly because the creators pulled the comic book staple of expanding the Might Ducks universe by introducing new characters with exactly one “secret/mutant” power/character trait. Now you had the super-tough guy Dean to team up with Fulton (himself mostly known for his rocket shot) to make the Bash Brothers. Julie “The Cat”, with her lightning-quick reflexes, could even defend the previously-unstoppable triple deke. Luis Mendoza was the fastest guy the ice had ever seen, but couldn’t stop to save his life. And I guess to fill out the roster they added a cowboy (Dwayne) and the aforementioned street hockey star Russ (more on him later).
So why does this matter? Well, for a couple of years now, the RB situation at UM always left like a cut-rate casting of the Ducks, with guys trying to fill in the “power”, “speed”, “every down”, etc. roles but with limited success. They played hard and, at times, could fill in their roles admirably, but it should trouble people that even with Fitz’s decent 2011 season and barely playing his first year, Denard accounted for 42% of the team’s total rushing yards during his career. In virtually every circumstance, he was the best/only real option to move the ball on the ground, whether it be in short-yardage, designed first-down runs, even catching out of the backfield toward the end of last season.
This year, it feels like the situation will be improved if for no other reason than the talent in the backfield is significantly better than in years past. Even coming back from injury I expect Toussaint to be better than he was last season, and if he can’t line up full-time in the backfield is still a great change-of-pace back with (I hope) the elusiveness and phone-booth shiftiness everyone saw a couple of years ago. Green and Smith were some of the top RB recruits in the nation last year, and both look capable of running the ball 20-25 times a game if needed. Shallman and Kerridge should be able to provide some power in short yardage (I guess Rawls could improve here as well but who knows) and, in Shallman’s case, maybe a bit more in the open field. Guys like Hayes and Johnson look like situational backs who could move into the slot in certain formations and cause issues against LBs and Safeties. And to both make Brian happy as well as wedge in the reference that drove me to shoehorn the RB situation into this horrible analogy, Norfleet is the ultimate Knuckle-puck and a player I expect will help immensely in the return game if nothing else.
Getting yards on the ground still relies immensely on the guards and center blocking FAR better than they did last year, but it finally feels like the backfield could whip out a flying V of talent.
Worst: Where’d the “Gimmick” Go?
With Denard gone and Devin and co. clearly moving toward a more “classic” offense philosophy, I’m having to come to grips with the fact that the atypical elements of this team are rapidly disappearing. It always drove me crazy when people would call the spread option a “gimmick” offense, because last time I checked the goal was to score points as frequently as possible by maximizing your strengths and exploiting the weaknesses of your opponent. It wasn’t THAT long ago that people viewed the forward pass as (at best) a fad and (at worst) an affront to the game that killed 18 people and injured 100s, and even the multiple-receiving TE craze of recent years was scoffed at when it was first introduced. It’s an offense that clearly works in college, and the flexibility it gave in terms of play-calling helped make UM stand out a bit compared to the Big Ten-ness of offenses at outfits like Iowa, Wisconsin, and MSU.
While Al Borges’s offense looks to move the ball far better than other teams in the conference and should feature a fair number of wrinkles, the designed QB runs, unpredictable formations, and Worst Waldo Ever are probably relics of the past.
Worst: Stupid Elephant
Even though UM won’t be seeing Purdue until 2017 doesn’t mean that the Boilermakers couldn’t dramatically affect UM’s season as they unleashed Perry, clumsiness elephant in the world upon Jake Ryan and his precious ligaments. Though it sounds like he’ll be back in time for most of the conference slate, he’ll likely just be getting his conditioning and game-speed bearings when the meat of the schedule (@MSU, Nebraska, @NW, @Iowa, OSU) kicks in. Mattison Uber Alles and all that, but its going to be interesting to see how this defense responds without their leading tackler (88 total tackles) and pressure generator (team-leading 4.5 sacks). Let’s hope the hype around Clark, Ojemudia, and Washington is for real, because that line is going to have to generate a significantly better pass rush. You can only blitz so many times before good offenses figure out how to exploit those holes, and UM’s corners simply aren’t experienced/good enough right now to play on islands (though I do think they’ll be good).
And an aside: having recently had a birthday and solidly entering my early 30’s, I am definitely feeling my age when it comes to minor injuries. Whereas in years past running a couple extra miles or tweaking a muscle lifting took all of a day to recover from, now I’m limping around like I’ve got shrapnel in my ankle if I don’t stretch 10 minutes before jogging. So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that 20-something-year-olds can bounce back from these injuries in record-breaking time. It just blows my mind that Ryan will see the field 7 months after this injury. Heck, when Timmy’s Dad came back from his ACL injury and was a reasonable approximation of the player he was before, people thought it was a miracle.
You Decide: The (Near) End of an Era
I apologize to the mother of the equine that is about to be bludgeoned again, but we are rapidly nearing the end of the Rodriguez regime’s influence on Michigan football. While RR coached his last game on the UM sideline on January 1, 2011, the long tail from recruiting, player development, and (minor) cultural impact is still affecting Hoke’s regime years later. That’s the thing about coaching changes; the head guy may leave his office in a single day, but the fallout from his time at the helm literally remains for years. And we all know how it feels when a guy just lingers.
(* Full Disclosure: I remain a staunch believer that RR’s tenure at UM could have turned out quite differently if a handful of about eleventy billion things had gone differently. Your mileage with him will likely vary, but the guy who recruited Lewan, Denard, Gardner, Fitz, Ryan, etc. and obliterated a number of school records – admittedly both good and bad – could have worked in Ann Arbor.)
While we have seen some players from his regime leave in the past, the transition from last year’s squad to this year really feels like the first natural “purge” of RR’s most prominent players. The kids who left in 2013 were the first full RR class to matriculate, the kids who signed up after the 3-9 season and survived immense negative karma that welcomed them to campus, Stretchgate, the losing seasons, the Process, and, finally, some redemption.
The two names that I suspect stick out for most MGoBloggers are Denard and Kovacs; the Alpha and Omega that embodied the dichotomy and extreme variance that was a hallmark of the Rodriguez years.* Denard was the scintillating maestro of an offense that could be maddening for fans and opponents alike. At his peak, Denard was the most exciting player Michigan had fielded in a generation; his two transcendent games against ND rank up there with Biakabutuka against OSU, Braylon’s new Math, Chris Perry’s marathon versus MSU, Mercury Hayes leading the comeback against UVa, and a slew of performances by Woodson, Wheatley, and Hart. His flaws were well-documented (mediocre passer, injured, the sometimes-victim of being the best option on every play), but when he was on he gave fans the feeling of having the “ringer” in a game; of having the guy who was so much better than everyone else that it didn’t seem fair.
If Denard was the quintessential spread QB recruit, Jordan Kovacs epitomized the other mythos of Rich Rodriguez: gritty walk-on makes good. Sure, if you read his Wikipedia page the story feels incredibly predictable, but at the time I doubt anyone expected the kid with a single preferred walk-on offer at Toledo (yes, that Toledo) would become a team MVP and leave this program as one of the better safeties in its history. He just made plays, and I’ll admit that my testicles will probably retract a bit the first time someone goes deep on Michigan this year. I suspect Gordon will slide in adequately enough, but you don’t replace a mult-time conference award winner easily, regardless of the story told in getting him on the field.
This season will only accelerate the exodus of The Last Guy’s recruits, and while I am exceedingly happy about The Current Guy’s performance, it is still a bit sad to see some of the standard-bearers of this important era in Michigan’s history move on.
* You could also make a case for BWC, the biggest “can’t miss” prospect that flamed out under RR and only recovered under the steady hand of Hoke and Co. Because if there was a third defining element to the RR era, it was big-name prospects (Tate, Cullen, Cissoko, etc.) failing to live up to expectations.
Best: The Gap is Shortening
Of all the systemic and natural advantages certain programs have – coaching stability, location, tradition, money, SEC-ness – probably the most important to sustained success is player development & talent replenishment. The reason programs like Alabama, LSU, Stanford, Oregon, OSU, etc. have been successful recently is that the depth charts usually remain pretty flush with talent year over year. Sure, you’ll see holes pop up here and there as recruits flame out or unexpected attrition occur, but for the most part good teams stay that way because when you graduate one all-conference performer there’s usually a guy or two behind him to fill in those shoes.
If you take a look at the unofficial depth chart, you’ll notice there’s this massive wall of players for 2016 and 2017 crumbling to a handful of 2013 starters and regular contributors. This drop is less precarious on the defensive side than the offense, which makes sense given the coaching staff’s composition and their early focus when they took over, but it highlights the “blue-bloods”/“first-world problems” meme you see thrown around with consistently-great teams that, once upon a time, included UM.
A common refrain you hear from programs like Texas, OSU, UM, Alabama, OU, Oregon, etc. is that if they aren’t winning the conference and playing for the MNC/major bowl game, the season is a “disappointment” even if they win 9+ games. This inevitably drives other, less consistently successful teams crazy because it reeks of entitlement and a sense of superiority. While that is probably a part of it, the bigger reason is that these teams know they are so superior in talent compared to most of their competition that the band of variance for their season is relatively narrow; they’ll rarely lose more than 2-3 games a season because they probably only play 3-4 teams with comparable talent a year. Even with the odd upset, they’re not worried about making a bowl game or having a winning record unless something cataclysmic happens. Because they have depth, the natural ebb and flow from injuries and departures year-to-year is muted; the whole “we don’t rebuild, we just reload” refrain. That was never true under RR (I get into the lasting influence of his tenure below), and the later Carr years had their fair share of talent gaps that culminated in the Horror and the aftermath.
Hoke is obviously doing a great job replenishing the cupboard with top-notch talent, and I suspect that in a year or two the expectations for UM will return to their lofty heights. But if anyone thinks that there won’t be quite a few true/RS freshmen playing meaningful minutes this year, you’re going to be surprised. 8-5 is just as likely as 11-2 despite the seeming upward trajectory of the team in recent years.
Best: And in a Hurry!
This is a late addition given the events of the BBQ, but by gawd Hoke is doing work when it comes to skill position players, which was the last “real” concern people had regarding his recruiting acumen. In hindsight, his early focus on linemen and depth makes sense since a Denard-led offense should be able to score a reasonable number of points to hide many deficiencies on that side of the ball. But having already picked up some of the best RBs and WRs in last year’s class, he wasted no time grabbing some of the best WR, RB, and DB players early on for 2015. This won’t totally mitigate that gap between upperclassmen and the rest of the depth chart, but Hoke and co. are going to do their best to eradicate that issue with overwhelming force.
Best: We want people to pass?
After living through the weekly carpet-bombing by 5x Heisman Trophy winners like Ben Chappell, Scott Tolzien, and Chris Relf, the last thing I’d thought I’d be saying a couple years later is that the secondary looks like, if not a strength, at least an adequate part of the defense this year and one of the strengths of the team going forward. Taylor impressed me as the chief replacement for Countess after his own ACL injury (damn you Perry!), and veterans like Avery and camp surprise Hollowell should help fill in the gaps and limit the reliance on the younger talent. There definitely isn’t a Woodson, Hall, or Jackson in the backfield, but the corners should be able to stick with enough receivers on the schedule that teams will have to at least earn those long completions.
Best/Worst: Come On B1G
It has been discussed on this board many times before, but looking around the conference I’m not seeing any teams poised to make the leap up in competition. On one hand this should make UM fans happy; the Big 2, Little 10 situation pumps up the win totals. At the same time, when the third best team is either an in-transition Wiscy, a sanctioned PSU, or a meh MSU, it doesn’t speak highly of the strength of the conference and how it will be perceived when bowl selection and rankings roll around. I expect MSU’s defense to be one of the stronger units in the nation and for Wiscy and NW to continue to exceed their talent level, but you’d hope that “better than expected” wouldn’t be the ceiling for over half the teams in the conference.
So that’s it. Comment away below if you got this far, and tell me where I screwed up. I’m sure I did somewhere. John Navarre’s still the QB, right? Go Blue!
So yeah, this has actually been in the works for a couple of weeks, but being the superstitious person that I apparently am when it comes to sports, I held off posting while UM kept plowing through the best teams in the country. As a result, I’ve had to completely junk sections (e.g. talking about Burke’s chances at national POY honors, lack of compelling storylines) while fleshing out others (e.g. horrible refereeing, announcers with agendas, 3-point shooting as a sustainable offensive strategy) with more information. And maybe the wounds are still too raw and fresh, but this post will be my little catharsis after going through the emotional wringer.
Best: Thank you!
This post may get a little melancholy, so up front I want to say “Thank you” to the team, the coaches, to everyone for a great season. When I caught UM in NYC just before Thanksgiving, I hadn’t seen them play in person in over a decade. But not 5 minutes into that game, I couldn’t get over how much fun it was to watch them. They played the game “the right way”, but not in the cliche way old men use it to refer to a figment of their faded memories, but in the way good basketball should be. It has been an amazing run all year, and will be a tale I tell my kids years from now when they are staring at their iPad 7s at dinner and ignoring me.
This team was fun to watch, and as a fan that is the best complement you can give a team.
Not to go all SEC and make everything about football, but does everyone remember how depressing the 2008 Michigan football season was? The team went 3-9 and wasn’t even that good, and the bowl streak ended, the team was trounced by mid-level MAC teams and freaking Illinois, and everyone was bummed? And this stink, this cloud of despair, didn’t really start to leave until Brady Hoke showed up and the team beat OSU and won the Sugar Bowl?
Well, the conventional wisdom during 2008 was that most Michigan fans had never experienced such a profound sense of national irrelevance, let alone the tangible results of a losing season, in their lifetimes, that they didn’t know how to handle it. They had expectations, and those finally did not mesh with reality. As a result, they lacked the copping mechanisms other fanbases built up over time, of seeing your best efforts end in missed bowl games and losing streaks to rivals. You get used to the teases, the down years, the unknown trials and tribulations that put pencils in your hands during preseason prognosticating when you really want pens. You can’t assume anything, which maybe makes the lows more ominous but also makes the highs that much sweeter.
People will say that UM basketball entered this circle of Hell when Steve Fisher walked out those doors, bodies sticking out from beneath the various rugs and buses strewn about Crisler. But that always felt like an easy-to-locate marker than an actual timestamp, the “official” end of an era for narrative purposes. To me, the beginning of this sports purgatory was that 1993 National Championship game. Until that point, Michigan had seemingly been on a perpetual rise. The title in 1989 felt slightly unexpected at the time but, in hindsight, kind of made sense given the talent on the team. They followed that win up with another solid season, one admittedly down year in 1991, and then the rise of the Fab Five. For a solid 5-year stretch, everything was coming up Michigan.
But then UM lost to North Carolina, and the magic was gone like that. In hindsight, it would have been gone regardless of the outcome, because expectations had been ratcheted up to unsustainable levels as soon as Chris, Jalen, Juwan, Jimmy, and Ray pulled up their black socks. 1989 was the title, but 1993 gave people the license to expect a title, and this pivot is what turns fans from 1980 US Hockey fans to 1980 USSR Hockey fans.
Duke fans feel like this, same with UNC, Kansas, IU and MSU. You want to just love your team for what it is now, but you can’t completely ignore what they were and what they should be. And that taints your view a bit; you are relieved when they squeak by a 5 seed in the second round of the NCAA tournament because it means another trip to the Sweet 16, and it leaves the possibility open for a run to the Elite 8 and to the Final Four. You feel a release not of happiness but of pressure, vicariously living through wins and loses the way you always say you won’t but inevitably ends with you screaming at the television in front of mixed company.
I guess my point is that regardless of how Monday turned out, UM basketball has returned to national relevance, and that is amazing for fans like me who tried to talk himself in Maceo Baston and Louis Bullock as saviors of the Maize and Blue cagers. John Beilein has proven to be a dynamic offensive mind and a very shrewd recruiter, who can meld teams into his image and overcome many of the deficiencies found in the college game. Even with the expected turnover, people will expect UM basketball to be back in the conference and national title hunts most years, like a national power should be. At the same time, though, the feelings of these past 4 weeks will probably never be there again, or if they are they’ll be tinged with a dread you can’t quite shake. The cloud over UM basketball has finally lifted; it may just be replaced with a far less oppressive one.
Worst: You can take the referees out of the Big 10, but you can’t take the Big 10 out of the referees
Now, I could complain about the officiating in that title game as much as anyone, but it was emblematic of a trend in college basketball that has been going on for years. Whether it be due to the byzantine and obtuse rulebook and its inconsistent enforcement, the speed and development of the players, or simply a drop in overall quality, the officiating of major college basketball has been immensely underwhelming. Offensive players are either treated as Faberge Eggs with the ball (and any impediment of their travel to the hoop treated as a class-2 misdemeanor), or running backs in the worst Oklahoma drill in the world. Defensive players seemingly have no idea what qualifies as a foul or not, so they just throw their bodies around and get handsie like they’re at the Gold Club until they hear a whistle. Blatant calls are missed while game-clock differences of .2s result in 20-minute private screenings of computer monitors.
Since players started to go directly to the NBA with little or no time spent in college, people have offered this up as evidence as to why the college game has suffered both aesthetically as well as in results. And while it is true that the overall talent of squads has been diminished, the quality of the games has been affected at least as much by the degradation of the officiating. Or maybe that’s not the right term; the enforcement of rules has become so murky that referees seemingly are making them up as they go along, creating the disjointed and error-riddled product we’ve seen for over a decade.*
And while I love complain about it as much as the next guy, I don’t think refs “pick” a team or storyline and skew the game in that direction. They don’t get paid by the outcome, and despite Tim Donaghy’s claims, I don’t think most horrible calls are part of some insidious plan to defraud the betting public. But this whole season has been a parade of poor officiating in every conference, highlighted by a B1G season in which mauling a player or punching him in the Hoosiers barely registers. UM benefitted from these calls at times, especially during the tourney, but the fact that even the CBS announcers were calling out the poor calls during the game is an indictment of the “professionals” who are supposed to be keeping the game clean for the kids playing it.
*And I’ll add that it’s not like the NBA game is some bastion of beautiful play either. People point at Heat-Thunder and act like the rest of the season plays out like that. As someone who watches Pistons-Bobcats and Timberwolves-New Orleans, lots of games are downright unbearable.
Best: Player of the year != Dickie V's/NBA Draft Express's Ranking
This was one of those sections that was in an earlier draft, before Trey Burke pulled a Triple H and took every relevant POY award for himself. But whatever, it is still relevant. I know I sound like a cranky old man and/or Skip Bayless, but it feels like the POY award criteria has devolved the past 15-20 years from "who is the best player in the country based on a spectrum of elements, including team success, boxscore stats, and quality of competition" to a big switch statement:
case "ESPN likes him";
case "Plays for Duke":
case "White guy with funny hair and/or 'tries hard'":
case "NBA teams will draft him high":
case "Plays for 'big-name' team:
case "Guy who plays basketball well":
I'm not saying this is a full-proof algorithm, but there is a trend, if you will.
But what makes his sweep so great is that he backed it up on the court in different ways, like a true player of the year should. Outside of the second halves against Kansas and Louisville, Burke could never find his rhythm shooting, so he turned on the ball-hawking defense and facilitated McGary and the shooters. He made his team better, and when they needed him to start scoring he usually did. Even in defeat, he scored 24 points in basically a half of basketball, and probably would have had more had two horrible foul calls (Hancock’s three and his block on Siva) not been made. And he did it without the top-notch supporting cast that you sometimes see at places like UNC, Duke, and Kentucky, where multiple lottery picks are peaking at the same time. Simply stated – he put his team in a position to win every game, and it was refreshing to see a POY do that in big games.
Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I’m expecting McGary, GRIII, and Stauskas to return next year. Burke will be leaving and I expect Hardaway to be gone as well, but overall this team should have some talented players returning to supplement the Irvin and Walton joining the fold next year. It will be interesting to see how the young frontcourt players respond to an offense without a POY feeding them the ball at the best places possible, but I also have faith that they will make the necessary improvements to be leader-types next season. In particular, the rebounding ceiling of this team should rise dramatically, if for no other reason than a year in the weight room (not sure if they’ll have time to be in the community) will bulk up McGary and Robinson to the point they can bang with other post presences in the conference. And while I’m not expecting Spike to replace Burke’s production or leadership, he has proven himself to be a steady enough hand (and Beilein a great molder of PGs) to be a suitable replacement next year. The team will look quite a bit different, but a dramatic fall doesn’t seem likely.
Worst: Draft Speculation
Ugh. Every year, as soon as the confetti has been swept off the court in whatever gawd-awful football stadium the NCAA selected to screw up their championship environment, the attention turns to which players will/should be declaring for the NBA draft. Until recently, of course, UM never had to worry about it. Sure, Jamal Crawford declared early and that stunk, but the NCAA seemed hell-bent on making sure he’d never play a college game again, so that wasn’t a surprise. Manny Harris and Darius Morris were slight surprises but nothing shocking, especially given the clear ceilings in their games.
But the talk surrounding GRIII and McGary seems different, in that it epitomizes the “upside-idation” of pro basketball right now. It’s no longer enough to just be a competent player who needs to improve and mature; now everyone looks at a kid and guesses how he’ll look in 2-3 years, with more muscle, better shooting and different coaching, and then tries to figure out if he’s worth a draft pick. I think both of these players will get drafted in the NBA when they finally leave, but I’ve seen nothing this season to make me believe they can be even a fringe-rotation player on a decent NBA team next season. That doesn’t seem like a smart investment for either kid to leave UM, but I’m sure the next couple of weeks will be filled with dread.
Best: Likeable Players
This is probably more a blurb than a real thought, but it was refreshing to watch a Final Four in which none of the teams featured an outwardly-villainous player. That means, no Marshall Henderson’s, no Derrick Nix’s, not even an Evan Turner-type who doesn’t do anything outwardly horrible but just seems like a jerk on the court. Maybe Triche at Syracuse, but I don’t remember people hating on him like other players in years past. I certainly wasn’t crazy about Luke Hancock as a player against UM, but him being good at basketball (and being bailed out by questionable officiating) aren’t really character flaws to the degree that old Shark Boy from Ole Miss is.
Worst: Injured Players != Special Powers
I’m sure this will be unpopular to some, but the Kevin Ware situation drove me crazy not because of the way the Louisville players responded to it, but how everyone else with a buck in the game tried to exploit it for their own gain. Shirts were made so that Adidas could make a couple more bucks, blogs flooded their site with GIFs and videos to drive traffic while joining in the faux-outrage circle jerk, proponents of paying college players held it up as a shining example of why players need to be financially compensated, and the WWL/media amplified coverage to 11 in order to push the narrative that a kid’s horrific injury meant something more than horrible luck. In short, it was what you’d expect from modern sports culture.
But the real travesty is that Ware’s injury had very little to do with, you know, basketball. He was a good player for the Cards, but they obviously were able to weather his loss on the court reasonably well. Those kids were obviously hurt and pained by watching one of their friends and teammates suffer a horrible injury, but the narrative pushed that they were going to play “hard for Kevin” completely dismisses the reality that these kids were in the Elite 8 and playing for a f’ing national title already. Their next loss would likely be the end of many of their college careers. They had enough motivation.
Yet, to listen to pundits you’d think Louisville needed to sacrifice Ware’s tibia and fibula to the Basketball Gods in order to overcome Duke, WSU, and UM. To cheapen what happened into some motivational plot device devalues the real pain and suffering that occurred. Louisville won and lost because of how they played on the court, and while I’m sure they were happy that Kevin Ware was able to watch them win the national title, I find it hard to believe that their motivation to win a title was supplemented in a meaningful way by his injury.
Worst: Looking for answers
After a loss, people always look for explanations, some fact or trend that explains how one team emerged victorious while another left in defeat. And in some games, perhaps there is a clear example – poor shooting, rebounding, defense, etc. Maybe the other team his 50% of its threes, or forced 25 TOs. But over time, you start to see that perhaps teams lose and win because, in a one-game playoff, anything can happen. UM was a mediocre rebounding unit all year, and that continued into the postseason (35.1 TREB in the regular season, 36 TREB in the tourney). They shot about 71% on FTs in the regular season, and not much worse in the tourney. The defense gambled with outside shooting all year and it usually worked out, except when it didn’t and they were blitzed by teams like IU and MSU. Nothing much changed this postseason except for the fact that UM cruised past VCU and Florida in ways that people didn’t expect. They squeezed out a win against a Kansas team that seemingly every year underperforms a bit. Syracuse was a nail-biter to the end, and Louisville could have turned on a couple of plays. UM’s profile didn’t change that much, except that when they went on those 3-pointer binges the other team usually failed to respond.
My point is that UM lost because someone had to, just like SDSU, VCU, Kansas, Florida, and Syracuse. Yes, talent tends to win out over time and that’s why regular seasons matter in terms of seeding, but the best and worst thing about the tourney is that every game feels like its own little SimCity, and sometimes the power reactor is going great, the streets are clean, and the taxes are high, and other times, well…
Best: Next Year
As much as I complained about the dangers of expectations, it is also fun to realize that for the first time in, I don’t know, decades, UM football and basketball seem to be both on the rise. I’m sure when one of these teams flames out early in the tourney I’ll feel differently, but it’s currently April 9th and everyone is still talking about UM basketball and not pining for the spring game so that we can all speculate on who’s going to be the starting right tackle. That’s pretty awesome.
Note: I usually try to incorporate the other Diaries in this post, but I’m kind of on a tight time crunch and just want to get this out. As always, please read the rest of the Diaries for thoughtful analysis, unique viewpoints, and photoshopped goodness. Me thinks there might be some good stuff after this game.
So, yeah. This is going to be shorter than past editions because, whatever man…
Best: “The Ohio State fans are a special people. Once a Buckeye, always a Buckeye”
That quote, uttered by noted Ohio State booster…er objective ESPN color commentator Chris Spielman, perfectly encapsulates how surreal today was for a non-Buckeye. During today’s game, Jim Tressel, noted disciplinarian and legal scholar, was honored along with the rest of his 2002 National Championship team. This, of course, was the team that featured a mercurial but talented freshman RB Maurice Clarett, who led the Buckeyes in rushing that season and also scored the title-winning TD in overtime against Miami. The whole gang was back, to give the OSU faithful one more opportunity to cheer on a myth, a delusion about its history that seems painfully obvious to everyone not wearing crimson and grey.
So between the first and second quarters of the final game the 2012 Buckeyes will play, a premature finale caused by Mr. Tressel’s behavior during his years in Columbus, the fans in attendance gave him a standing ovation, one of the biggest cheers of the day. All the while, the athletics department and the greater school, with nary a hint of irony, trumpeted his return as a conquering hero of sorts. The narrative went, at least in some circles, that most schools would have done the same, that fans love to cheer on winners and that most of those players were completely above board and played fairly, won every game that season, and, let’s be honest, Miami was no saint either. The thinking went that this was a team that the school should be proud of, or at least should be able to recognize publicly.
Now, I’m trying my best to stay off the soapbox, so I’ll keep this brief. Not all schools would be so quick to celebrate past athletic accomplishments tainted by violations. The next Steve Fisher Appreciation Night at Crisler will be the first, and Brian has been very clear about his feelings toward Louis “seriously, he can die in a fire for all I care” Bullock and the rest of that brood.
But more than some relativistic moral high ground that some UM fans want to take with OSU, the fact remains that the Buckeye fanbase IS special. It drove one of its more prominent alums out of the state, put a bounty out on high school kid who dared to change his commitment, and it has trouble with its emotions. It is a fan base seemingly always on the wrong side of razor’s edge that is fandom, crystallized in a ceremony memorializing the man who gave them one tainted undefeated season while sullying the next one as well. O-H-I-O, indeed.
Best: MGoMeltdowns are awesome
So as is the custom around these parts, the traffic to the site after a loss follows the same trajectory as general internet traffic does whenever illicit pictures of some starlet are “leaked” to the the web totally-unexpectedly-but-right-before-my-new-movie-Crushed Blue Velvet Girlfriend 2-is-released. For a graphical representation, here is a screenshot of the site about 4 minutes after the game ended
Click for full size
It will never approach RCMB or anything in the SEC not related to Vandy, but TWO redundant posts sarcastically “thanking” the coaches for losing the game, one out-and-out “Fire Borges” thread and one claiming he merely “sucked”, one thread already set for deletion, and about 1,100 posts in a game thread, 50% of them berating Al Borges and the team for a poor second half, is nothing to sneeze at. Subsequent posts included petitions to fire Al Borges, a couple crying out for sanity, and one inferring a discussion about iCarly and Larry Hagman that felt appropriate for an 8th-grader’s “MySpace” profile. Then Ace showed up with his usual quality summary and solid reasoning, which is like, Booo this man!
So why is this a “Best”? Because this outpouring feels organic and based on real concerns. During the RR era, people used to freak out after wins OR losses, calling for guys’ heads and questioning everyone’s credentials from the water boy on up. It was an anger born from desperation and confusion, watching a once-proud program flail about on the field for 3 hours every Saturday. But with this team, the complaints are natural, as people know what Michigan is and what they aren’t, and the reasons behind those limitations are real. It’s sobering to see the cracks in this team both today and going forward, but at least they aren’t obfuscated by a general malaise.
Worst: The Blame Game
Since time immemorial fans have complained about offensive coordinators at UM; in my lifetime, I don’t remember a single OC who left the program without being singed pretty badly on the way out. DC’s tend to get off cleaner, at least in part because defensive playcalling feels “harder” to dissect than offensive sets. It probably is a combination of the reactive nature of defense versus the active nature of offense, fans being trained to focus more on the ball than anything else on the field, and the reality that, with few exceptions, offensive players are more prominent, their successes and failures more memorable than their defensive counterparts. And as the puppet master, the general leading that side onto the field, the offensive coordinator naturally takes on a prominent, public-facing role that invites criticism.
Al Borges called a good first half of football against OSU and between a predictable (best case) and atrocious (worst case) second half. Of course, he probably doesn’t deserve as much credit as he’ll get for the first half nor as much blame for the cratering in the second half. Denard’s end-of-quarter 67-yard TD run was all about a playmaker taking advantage of poor tackling technique by OSU and making a play with the ball. In the second half, he wasn’t the reason Devin fumbled the ball deep in UM’s territory, nor the line’s continued inability to get any type of push up the middle.
So yes, the offense failed to do much in the second half against an aggressive but beatable defense. And while it did reasonably well in terms of points in the first half, two of those TDs were on plays that benefitted as much from OSU mistakes as UM’s offensive playcalling. I already discussed Denard’s run benefitting from the GERG-approved “bump the runner, but hard” tackling technique. The muffed punt by Brown gave UM great field positioning, and they cashed in after OSU again bailed them out with a roughing the passer penalty on 3rd down. The pass to Roundtree was a decent playcall but morphed from first-down yardage to TD because of a stiff-arm and some blown coverage. At no point today did the offense feel particularly well-tuned, and toward the end the playcalling devolved to a single index card with “throw the ball” scribbled on it with blue crayon.
For better or for worse, this game was a microcosm of what Al Borges brings to UM. As I have said for months, echoing others both here and in the greater blogosphere, he is not the type of OC who is willing/capable of drastically altering his gameplan within a game, and only sparingly between games. It was clear after the first game of the year that he has an offense in mind with the players he has, and outside of massive injuries to key players that won’t change.
He’s Teddy KGB, and his tell was nakedly obvious to everyone who watched this game, and really, the past two seasons. He’ll win his fair share of hands because the cards dealt to him dictate so, but he’s had two seasons to show the UM faithful that he is better than statistics and flops and hasn’t come close to proving otherwise.
One of the chief complaints people had during the Rich Rodriguez era was the blind loyalty he showed to certain members of his staff, often at odds with their performance on the field. The name “Tony Gibson” remains a bad word on certain message boards, and at various times Bruce Tall and Jay Hopson came under fire for their ineffective coaching. Yet despite fielding horrific defenses and offensive units that were “unpredictable” at best for long stretches of his tenure, RR kept these coaches around because they had come up with him and thus deserved his loyalty, like a successful athlete who finances a cadre of family and friends because he had history with them. And that, as much as the recruiting misses, the weak performances in big games, the caustic media environment, and the losing, was the reason he failed at UM.
So when Brady Hoke arrived at UM, after all of the memorable quotes and wins, one message you kept hearing was his loyalty. He loved this program, he loved this school, and he respected the coaches that worked with him. The 11 wins masked some of the issues that became more prominent this year, previously hidden behind unsustainable fumble recovery rates and last-second heroics. The offense has struggled mightily all year, with the line unable to consistently open lanes for running backs, who then seem unable to produce any additional yards beyond those made available by play design and blocking. The passing game has proven more proficient as the season progressed, but that seems to have been due as much due to poor defenses as any growth brought on by better play-calling and maturation. Punt returns remain an issue for special teams, as does blocking on kick-offs, but that may be as easy as adopting a couple different formations and getting someone back there who won’t let the ball bounce 20 yards after it touches the ground.
The defense has been statistically spectacular and functionally solid. Mattison has been able to generate solid play at all three levels despite a dearth of experience and/or talent at those positions, but the secondary remains questionable outside of Kovacs and the line could not hold up as the game progressed, being gashed consistently by Hyde in the 4th quarter. But those feel like correctable issues with recruiting, and the advancements already made for a unit that 2 years ago was one of the worst in the nation provide hope.
I am not advocating wholesale changes of the staff, but it will be a test of Brady Hoke’s loyalty to see what happens after the bowl game. RR seemingly picked loyalty to his coaches over winning*, and it cost him. We’ll see if Hoke believes that these men can fix the problems before them and move on, or if his loyalty to UM leads him to shake up the staff.
*I know this is reductive to an extent, but I honestly believe changes to the staff could have saved him in his second and third years.
Worst: The Wall
This game was like the meanest 13-year-olds you’ll ever meet, because it rudely highlighted the season-long inability of this squad to run the ball with anyone not named Denard. Lewan struggled for swaths of the game, highlighted by Adolphus Washington strip-sacking Gardner on UM’s opening drive. Thomas Rawls had 3 yards on 5 carries, highlighted by 1 and 2-yard runs on first down. On twelve rushes in the second half, UM totaled 23 yards for 1.9 yds/c, and that includes a fumble and two instances where UM got 0 yards on short third- and fourth-down runs. Beyond this game, Fitz had rushing averages of 1.1 (Purdue), 3.4 (Illinois), and 0.9 (Air Force), and failed to break 100 yards all season before his injury, a year after recording 5. With Lewan likely leaving, talented but young recruits on the line probably not quite ready to start, and Denard and his 3 1,000 yard seasons graduating, it remains a mystery how this team will move the ball on the ground at all next year.
It’s been said already, but Denard once again left everyone breathless. People will probably remember the 67-yard TD run, but he also had an amazing 30-yard run on UM’s first drive, and finished with 122 yards on 10 carries. He definitely struggled in the second half with a fumble and less than 10 yards on 4 carries, and there were signs that he might have been injured after that early fumble. Regardless, he scored his 6th career TD against OSU, and showed continued leadership and support for this team in whatever capacity he was asked. And while it does appear that it may take a fresh set of eyes to use him to the best of his abilities, he leaves UM as an all-time great both on and off the field.
Worst: Fun with Flags
Per usual, the Big Ten referees were out in full force, throwing 14 flags for around 130 yards. The customary WTF Call of the Week Award(TM) goes to the atrocious offensive PI on Roy Roundtree that even stopped Chris Spielman, but this game also featured a couple of personal fouls and a couple of missed calls, including the Norfleet facemask penalty on an OSU punt return that even Dennis thought was going to be called given how frequently he kept looking at the ref as he ran off the field. It was a chippy game, but one due less to players making solid, hard-hitting plays as much as stupid block-in-the-back penalties and out-of-bound hits 2-3 yards into the sideline. It felt like a MSU-UM game, and both of these teams should be better than that.
Best: Devin, the Defense, and the Future
Despite his struggles holding onto the ball and that bad interception to effectively end the game, I thought Gardner played reasonably well. He was under near-constant pressure all game (4 sacks), and had no running game to support him in the second half. 11-20 with a TD and an INT are decent numbers in only your 4th game of the season at QB and the first “real” road game (Minny barely counts as a football team given how they ended the season). Roy Roundtree also had a nice finishing game against OSU, highlighted of course by that 75-yard TD, while Gallon continued his sneaky-good season with 67 more yards. Both of these guys came on strong to end the season, and I think Gallon will have a fine senior year.
Now, you’d think after giving up 20 points in the first half the defense would be in for a Worst, but they held tough in the second half despite being on the field seemingly the whole time, only giving up 6 points (3 after a turnover that gave OSU the ball on the UM 10 yard line) and forcing a fumble. The line largely held until the 4th quarter, when Hyde and co. started to gash them inside. Mattison devised a defense that limited Miller to one 42-yard scramble but also sacked him 4 times. Miller had a good day passing the ball, but he noticeably slowed down the second half and, frankly, he remains far less dangerous with his arm than with his legs. It wasn’t a dominant performance by any means, and the corners were still unable to stay with OSU’s receivers at times, but it played well enough to win.
Will Campbell finished with 10 tackles, and the LBs all played reasonably well. Frank Clark had a bone-shattering sack on Miller in the first half and recovered a fumble caused by JMFR in the 4th to give the team a chance. The future looks bright for this unit, and it will be interesting to see how they play at the bowl game after a month to prepare and next season firmly in view.
Best: In the Wild
So on Wednesday, I attended the UM-Pitt basketball game at MSG with BronxBlueWife (BBW, for short, though not really in any way), and obviously wanted to support the team and rock the Maize and Blue. But as someone who graduated college about a decade ago, those old Steve & Barry t-shirts are starting to fall apart, and I haven’t been back to replenish the stock recently. But then I remembered that I DID have a shirt with the appropriate color scheme, fit, and yes you know where this is going…
Yes, that’s BronxBlue rocking the smedium t-shirt (stupid dryer). And yes, I am married, gainfully employed, and the owner of an automobile and a 401k. Also, apparently, a 4.2-head and an 8-year-old haircut. But these shirts do exist in the wild and are worn non-ironically. And as you can see, seats were VERY available.
So maybe outside of the bowl game, this will be it for my weekly recaps of games. I’m not knowledgeable enough of a basketball fan to really dissect the game in a meaningful way, and there are so many games that even short recaps would take quite a bit of time. I might knock one out before the conference season starts if anything eventful plays out, and maybe after a marquee game or two. But thanks to everyone who read through my rants and leaving comments. Go Blue!
Quick note – this got a little long. Not sure what got into me. Feel free to stick around.
So you’ve cried over the Haikus, seen the animated gifs, and read the numerous odes to the seniors as they leave UM. And it probably got a little dusty in whatever room you were sitting in when man-hugs were being doled out on the field.
And at the end of the day, UM was victorious on Senior Day, most of the seniors had their moments to shine, and the banner was raised for the last time in 2012.
Best: Those Who Came and Stayed Will Always Be Champions
I know that everyone has talked up last year’s seniors as epitomizing Bo’s “Stay and Be Champions” motto, but I’ve always felt this Senior class has been given a short shrift considering the environment that existed when they decided to come to UM. The 2011 class came to UM with a fair bit of uncertainty, what with a coaching change and a shift in offensive and defensive systems, but they all arrived on campus in a world where UM hadn’t missed a bowl game since Nixon was in office and had only one .500 record over that span. Like everyone, they figured UM would, at worst, suffer through a “down” season of 8 wins before challenging for more titles.
But we all know how that played out. And not only did the team struggle on the field, but off it players questioned Rich Rodriguez’s leadership and allegations of improprieties bubbled up before the season. Their reality was a program coming off the worst season in their history, with an embattled coach and a media ready to burn him at the stake. Few offensive and defensive stars could be found on the roster, highlighted by the fact that UM had two players taken in the 2009 draft and 3 in 2010, with one of them being a punting Space Emperor.
And yet, these kids showed up and played through another bowl-less year. They watched as the vultures started to circle RR and his staff, saw the defense continue to flail even as the offense finally started to come around. They fought to make a bowl game in 2010 even though it probably wasn’t enough to save their coach, and when he was replaced with Brady Hoke seemingly all of them accepted him with open arms, unlike the cooler reception received by RR in 2008. The cries of lost values and playing time were never heard and probably were never uttered; these kids came to play for Michigan and represent the University as best they could. By their words and deeds, they exceeded this bar immeasurably.
Now, I’m probably waxing too poetic about college kids; I’m sure that part of the silence is due to tighter controls inside the Fort, and I’d be foolish to ignore that some kids did transfer away from the school for reasons that probably had to do with playing time and classroom performance. But from Robinson to Kovacs, Roundtree to Campbell, this was a team of star-crossed recruits who signed up for a wounded program and rehabilitated it in 4 short years. They deserved to leave Michigan stadium the way they entered; winners and champions.
Best: The Food Court
Most people don’t realize just ingrained food courts have become to everyday life in America, as the advent of malls and massive shopping centers, increased air travel, and cross-country road trips created a necessity for centralized food stops that were both inexpensive as well as diverse so as to satisfy the disparate palates that frequented them. The classic food court tends to feature a name-brand burger joint like McDonald’s or Burger King, a Chinese food restaurant with a faintly-racist and/or suggestive name like “Fook Hing”, an “authentic” pizza place like Sbarro, an overpriced juice place for the “hippies”, a restaurant featuring the native cuisine of a country you’ve probably run roughshod through in Call of Duty, and a cookie depot for dessert. Of course, over the years these areas have evolved and adapted to different clientele and needs, so now you might find a decent sushi joint, a Kosher deli, or a shrunk-down version of a sit-down restaurant like T.G.I. Fridays or Shenanigans. But regardless of how they are constituted, the food court symbolizes options and a bit of gastronomical sanctuary in times of need.
So what does this have to do with Michigan football, you ask in your inner voice that probably sounds like Fred Savage? One of the memes of the past two years on this site is the Borges-Denard Fusion Cuisine that the offense has been forced to take on given the constraints and abilities of the parties involved. Logic goes that when you have an OC who loves a West Coast-style offense and he inherits a dynamic offensive player who is far better with his feet in the open field than standing tall inside a pocket, you try to meld the best of both to form an unstoppable offensive Frankenstein, but instead churn out an overcooked Turducken. You run the read-option while also trying to establish the run with the Pro set and I-form, you encourage the QB to scramble but also throw inside NFL windows between defenders, and you both fall back on the realization that with few exceptions, your guy is faster, more elusive, and plain “better” than the 20-year-olds trying to tackle him. And this works, most of the time.
The problem with the Cuisine characterization, though, is that it always revolved around a central, core element, one that remains the throughline across every down and dish. With Michigan, it’s always been about Denard Robinson, because since the day he stepped on campus he’s been the best offensive player on the team. During his tenure, his two best teammates on that side of the ball have been a center and a left-tackle, and it hasn’t been close. But “Denard” isn’t an offensive philosophy; it’s a “Break in Cast of Emergency” valve that kept this team afloat during the end of RR’s tenure as well as the beginning of Hoke’s.
A complete offense, one that Al Borges knows how to coach, requires options; he needs to be able to run the ball inside the tackles AND throw downfield, get a consistent push upfront to soften up the defense so that they bite on play-action, and hit the mid-distance passes to TEs as they are trailed by outmanned LBs and undersized safeties. He needs options and variety in order to dictate the flow of the game and adapt to what the defense is doing in response. In other words, he needs to be able to pick sushi one series, then throw our Gyros the next, followed by a Jamba Juice on third down. With Denard, the options always appeared more voluminous on paper than in practice, and it led to sub-optimal results when opposing defenses were able to slow down the preferred playcalls.
With Devin under center, that go-to “Denard” package is gone but it’s replaced with a more complete offense that, for better or for worse, largely relies on the rest of the team performing their duties or else the play is broken. Sure, Devin can still make something out of nothing when needed, but it’s also an offense that works like offenses of old, plus a few wrinkles like the always-effective, sparingly-used Fritz formation (THAT’s how you throw a screen). It grinds teams down through the air and ground, and given the cast of characters out there that is pretty impressive. In short, it’s an offense versus a playset, and while it pains me that Denard had to be injured for this to be occur, I think the offense (and the team) both this year and going forward are better for this maturation. The food court may have lost its signature restaurant, but the whole experience is a bit more filling when you are looking for something different.
Best: Keeping the Fritz running
I’m sure that Brian and others will go into greater detail, but I can’t get over how terrifying the Fritz/Diamond/DC bowel cleanser offense looks in select bursts. Any time that Denard and Gardner ran toward one side of the field, seemingly every Iowa defender followed them. If the two split, the defense looked absolutely lost on which player to cover, or was out of place in the event Denard Just Made A Play.
Going forward, I hope this component of the offense doesn’t disappear. It may mean recruiting another pure athlete like a Denard or Antonio Bass (please ignore the name of the clip) and fitting him in where possible, but guys like Norfleet are probably going to be most effective in running offenses with some misdirection and trickery, and rolling out the formation with players capable of throwing, running, or catching the ball is the type of “out athlete-ing” of opposition schools like UM should be doing.
Worst: Not more Questions?
Of course, I just spent 500 words waxing poetically about the state of the offense, so you’re probably wondering why I’m still bitching about the same unit? Well, on one hand you have them scoring at least 35 points per game since Devin took over, capped by Devin’s scintillating 6 TD performance in about 3 quarters of play. The team ground up the Hawkeyes both on ground and in the air for touchdowns on their first 6 drives of the game, and as ST3 noted, the WRs always had between 1 and eleventy-billion steps on the DBs. It was a dominating performance by a unit that seems to be hitting its stride.
BUT…at the same time, the past three weeks have featured some of the weaker defenses in the conference. Iowa is a solid middle in the country in terms of overall defense, while Minnesota just gave up 38 straight to Nebraska before they called the hogs off and Northwestern is, well, fine. Denard and the rest of the offense looked great against Illinois and Purdue as well, but were definitely stymied by the MSU’s and Notre Dame’s of the world, to say nothing of whatever Alabama did to them. And this has been a problem with Al Borges since he arrived at UM – the offense moves the ball easily against the dregs but grinds against tougher units.
Overall, though, it’s a unit that is definitely trending upwards, but one also buoyed by weaker opposition the past couple of weeks. And with OSU welcoming the Wolverines with a defense ranked below Tulsa, Minnesota, and 5-6 Virginia Tech, they may very well not see an above-average defense until January. So questions remain, but at this point I’m not sure we’ll have answers until 2013.
Best: We Found a Golden Ticket!
At the beginning of the season, the key question surrounding the offense was how the shotgun marriage between Denard (and by extension, the rest of the offensive players) and Al Borges would evolve in the second year. The general sentiment was the whole “square pegs and round holes” arguments you hear whenever teams are not moving the ball as effectively as they could/”should” be doing, with some siding with the pegs and others with the holes. Where you fall in this debate mirrors the arguments that seemingly boiled over every couple of weeks under RR, especially early on – do you expect Borges to alter his offense somewhat to highlight what the offense does best (i.e. Denard-centric), or do you expect him to integrate the current players as best he can into the system he knows? And when it failed, do you blame the carpenter (Borges) or the tools (the players) for the rock fights that ensued.
Borges’s offense demands accurate throws in-between levels, a running game that can find gaps on the ends AND generate holes up the middle so that teams have to respect classic play-action, and, perhaps most importantly, QBs who are smart enough to throw the ball away/take a loss when needed, but also capable of improvising and relying on athleticism when needed. With Jason Campbell in 2004, Borges seemingly met his perfect fit – a guru-approved QB with plus athleticism who struggled at times to put it together but was spectacular when he finally did. Not to mention the fact that he had two NFL first-rounders at the RB position in Ronnie Brown and Carnell “Cadillac” Williams (and a young Kenny Irons, who later was drafted in the 2nd round, was waiting on the bench under the one-year transfer rule). The Brandon Cox years that followed were less forgiving, but Borges was able to rebound at San Diego State with reasonable approximation of his 2004 Auburn team with Lindley and Ronnie Hillman, though Ryan Lindley was clearly not the same overall athlete as Campbell.
With Denard, Borges has the most athletic QB he’s ever had, but unfortunately accuracy hasn’t quite followed. While I am one to believe that part of Denard’s throwing issues are due to poor play-calling, he’s never going to be confused with a Henne or Brady out there, and this offense places more of a premium on hitting guys in stride than in out-running a safety in the open field. And because Denard is far more effective in the shotgun than in pro set formations, it eliminates running plays from Borges’s playbook, as he has shown only a lukewarm acknowledgment of the read-option offense Denard is best suited for.
But with Devin, Borges has that reasonably accurate QB who can look over the entire defense and buy some time with his legs, but who’s first inclination remains to throw the ball. Sure, he’ll run if you give him the lane, but he’s a scrambler more than a runner, and that athleticism is the type Borges seems best suited to harness, not the jitter-bug electricity of #16. So it looks like Al Borges found that last golden ticket, and it was sitting, er, stumbling around at WR all the time.
Worst: Fitz Injury
Up front, I am incredibly squeamish in a very particular way. I don’t mind blood or bruises, but whenever I see a leg twist the way it shouldn’t or an arm twist around more than about 100 degrees, I just imagine the cracking of bone and I lose it. And HD certainly doesn’t help, with its crystal-clear picture and high-quality still frames. This year we already had the horrific Marcus Lattimore injury, and now Fitz has broken any number of bones in his leg in a tackle that didn’t look that bad in real time but looks WAY worse on replay. His season is done, and while it has been a disappointing one for him statistically, he’s been a trooper all year and hopefully he’ll be able to return next year fully healthy.
Best: Greg Mattison, you beautiful bastard
Last week questions returned about this defense’s ability to slow down a dynamic offense like Northwestern, which at least early on found gaps on the edges and missed tackles were happening with regularity. While the team definitely settled down, highlighted by a 3-man front trick play to end the game, the cracks definitely shown through. So did this week smooth over those imperfections? In a sense yes, as UM held Iowa to 7 points until the game was well out of reach, and 0 catches by Iowa WRs. On the other hand, the fact that a team couldn’t connect a pass to a WR during a regulation game says quite a bit about the team’s offense, and Greg Davis’s singular goal to destroy BHGP’s soul.
But at the very least, the defense rebounded after a lackluster performance. Washington and Campbell clogged up the middle, Jake Ryan did Jake Ryan stuff, JRIII gave a great audition for a starting spot in 2013, and Kovacs ended his final home game the only way he could, recording 5 tackles and a clean-up sack to snuff out an Iowa drive. It was a great performance, and a proper send-off for a unit that has surprised everyone all year.
In particular, Will Campbell deserves credit for turning around his career a bit in this, his senior season. After coming to UM as a highly-touted recruit and struggling under GERG and the weight of those lofty rankings for 2 years, he’s made slow strides the past couple of years to being a competent DT in the Big 10, all the while keeping his nose clean and staying out of trouble. In hindsight, too much was probably expected of him coming out of high school, a monster of a child who never had to learn much technique (and certainly didn’t get much of it while in campus early on), but he’s been solid all season and helped to anchor a run defense that continues to shut teams down. I’m not sure if he’ll make it to the NFL, but his swan song has been a highlight for this unit.
Worst: Returning to Glory == 15 years
In light of Notre Dame’s divined return to relevance in college football, you’ve probably heard stories of echoes and Horesmen meeting up with Touchdown Jesus. Well, let it be said that 2012 will be the first time a Notre Dame team has won more than 10 games since 1993, and only the third time they’ve won 10 or more since 1997. Since they bottomed out at 3-9 in 2007, Notre Dame has won no more than 8 games in any season. Since 1997, UM has won 10 or more games 7 times, and were probably one Urban Meyer politicking away from playing for a title in 2006. Teams like Utah, TCU, and Auburn have all had better seasons as well, and while recruiting at Notre Dame has been solid, there is no assurance that this year’s ascension is anything more than a plucky independent team from a non-AQ conference riding some good fortune and a favorable schedule to an undefeated season. I know it’s Notre Dame and we should all be in awe of Brian Kelly turning top-1 recruiting classes into wins, but count my a skeptic on this being a true fortune turn for the Fighting Irish.
Worst: Everyone’s the worst, remix
Currently there are two undefeated BCS teams in the country – Notre Dame and Ohio State. One of them is barred from playing in a bowl game because their former head coach was a creep, and their current athletic director is an idiot. The only thing standing between the other and a Return to Glory(TM) is Lane f’ing Kiffin. Oh yeah, and an Alabama team that should have lost to Johnny Football by 20 but now has the inside track at repeating as champions and giving all college football fans another year of tie-wearing enthusiasts screaming their conference affiliation. I’m Catholic, but if Notre Dame walks out of the Coliseum still unblemished next week, I am going to start stockpiling supplies and building a boat.
And Ohio State was also the beneficiary of the now-weekly poor referee spot. You know, wait, this deserves it’s own section.
Worst: Hey ref, why don’t you bend over and use your good eye
So yeah, on the 3rd down run at the goalline of the Badger’s second-to-last drive of regulation against the Buckeyes, Montee Ball was down inside the 1 yard line. Thanks to ESPN’s super-duper sideline camera, everyone in America could see him and the ball well past the first down marker both digitally as well as on the sideline. Well, everyone except a line judge, who decided Ball and about 1 ton of Wisconsin cheese had moved OSU back 3 inches, bringing up 4th down. So of course, like any logical official the replay booth upstairs called down and said the last spot should be reviewed. ESPN then treated us all to another video clip showing Ball’s arm well beyond the first down marker when his knee hit. Brian Griese even commented that Ball would probably score on the next down and, perhaps, OSU should let him so as to keep more time on the clock.
Well, we all know what happened. The official upstairs confirmed the call on the field and Ball fumbled on the 1 inch line on the next play. Wisconsin ultimately scored to tie the game before losing in OT, but this inability to trust your eyes at least two times is becoming a trend in the Big 10. Last week it was the generous spot for Colter against UM and the PSU being robbed of a TD late in their game against Nebraska. This week’s Oregon-Stanford game also featured some weird spotting on the final Stanford drive of regulation, bringing up the question of why referees even replay ball spots if they almost never overturn them.
I know it’s a “judgment” call, but that’s true for virtually everything else in football and yet you can review many of those plays. In fact, a ball spotting is one of the least-subjective calls you can make; it’s where the ball was located when a knee or forearm touched the ground or a player’s body touched outside the field of play. You can look at a video still, see where the contact happened, then look where the ball is. You even have hash marks as helpful guideposts. The fact that it is 2012 and we are still having games decided by some myopic adherence to “human error” as part of the game is ludicrous for a billion-dollar sport.
Worst: Coaching ‘em Up.
People now equate this term with Mark Dantonio’s “amazing” ability to turn lower-rated recruits into good players, but the original master alchemist of turning 2 *’s into real stars was Kirk Ferentz. Guys like Shonn Greene, Pay Angerer, Captain America, and Amari Spievey went from recruiting also-rans to future NFL draft picks, all the while winning conference titles and bowl games against “superior” teams. And for this, both the myth and Kirk’s pocketbook grew by monstrous proportions.
Of course, the reality behind the narrative is a bit more muddled. Iowa has been sending players to the NFL at a rate that is startling higher than you probably expect; they are currently tied with Florida with the 6th-most players currently in the NFL*, ahead of teams like Alabama, OSU, Michigan, and Notre Dame. Their best players tend to be along the offensive and defensive lines, where good coaching and physical maturation can be the difference between oversized 17-year-olds becoming stars or cautionary tales for television specials about America’s growing obesity and the diseases that afflict them. And those stars, like Adrian Clayborn, Riley Reiff, Chad Greenway, and Bryan Bulaga, were rated pretty highly by recruiting services coming out of high school, and lived up to their billing.
To me, Ferentz is as much Moneyball and a favorable media presence as displaying a true ability to unearth diamonds in the recruiting rough. Norm Parker was a mainstay as DC under Ferentz until this year, and he installed a system that replaced seniors with redshirt juniors like clockwork, mitigating some talent disadvantages with a disciplined, consistent play style taught to kids for 2-3 years before they became starters (a lot like Northwestern at QB, where every year it seemed like a new RS junior QB was ready to take over). And on offense, Ferentz was all about keeping his backs clean behind an offensive line that wouldn’t necessarily blow you off the ball but could wear down the weaker teams in the conference. And when the going got tough, well, this would emerge:
And because of Ferentz’s early success, many people began to conflate his latter seasons with the prior ones into one “winning” tableau that wasn’t particularly true. Case in point, since 2004 Iowa has a record of 54-36; MSU, 53-36; Missouri 63-29. I know his best seasons were in 2002 and 2004, but his best seasons were nearly a decade ago, and he’s been averaging about 8 wins a season since 2002, with the number trending down as we get deeper into Justin Timberlake’s solo career.
My point isn’t to disparage Ferentz or his accomplishments, but to highlight what feels like a trend in the Big 10 going forward; this will be a conference dominated by OSU and UM going forward, and the “middle class” teams like MSU, Iowa, and NW will probably be squeezed out. Whereas years ago Ferentz seemed able to transform hay into gold, it looks now like Iowa is going to fall into that 7-8 wins plateau that usually drives non-Northwestern schools to “look for a change of direction” at the top. But of course, Ferentz has a contract that makes firing him virtually impossible financially at least until the latter part of the decade. So either his recruiting needs to pick up or that old “coaching magic” better return to Iowa City.
* Of course, #8 on this list is California, reminding us all that coaching may be a teeny-bit overrated when talking about certain “underdog” teams.
Best: Bring On Ohio State
Nothing much else to add except bring on the Buckeyes. This will be there season, but it should be Michigan’s as well. And if it plays out the way I think, I might break 5,000 words in my next post.