I'VE HAD JUST ABOUT ENOUGH OF YOU SONNY
Best: You Play to Win the Game!
Right off the bat: I had zero, nada, zilch issue with Brady Hoke’s decision to go for the win after Funchess’s late TD. Short reason why: Because when you have a chance to end it, you end it now. This team has already seen triple OT twice this year, and as a head coach you are paid to look at your team and put them in the best position to win a game, and sometimes that position is 3 yards from the endzone with 30 seconds to play.
I can give you statistical and objective rationales supporting this decision: UM had given up 393 yards rushing up to that point (at an 8.5 ypc clip), the defense was without Ross and on its backup kicker while OSU’s kicker Basil had only missed one all year, and with 32 seconds left even a tie was not assured given Wile’s last OOB kick and the speed by which OSU’s offense can move the ball. In OT you’re starting from the 25 yard line, with all the vagaries and dangers inherent in the sport of football on Saturday, and expecting a team to execute in that circumstance (especially given their inconsistencies all year) is a recipe for heartache. In short, you may never be that close to the endzone again this game, with a near-full playbook (I’ll get to the actual playcall a bit later) and the defense clearly on its heels.
Gardner was having a great game but had already been sacked 3 times (including once on that last scoring drive) and hit on numerous runs. In OT, the weight of the offense would undoubtedly been placed even heavier on his arms and legs, appendages that had already suffered immensely in this game (it was clear he was struggling to plant his foot while throwing the ball at times, and his recent fumbling issues indicated some arm injury).
Across the field, OSU had failed to really slow down the UM offense all day, giving up over 600 yards and failing to stop Funchess’s last TD from about the same distance. And while the situation isn’t perfectly encapsulated in the system, an advanced stat calculator pegged the success at over 55% given the down and distance.
But what made this the right call goes beyond the boxscore. I’m not one to believe to karma, that momentum works the same way to the flow of a football game as it does to TV scientists on rollerblades, or in the “power” of moral victories. But this team has been in a tailspin for weeks, notable as much for its ferocity as its totality. Against PSU, UM had played conservatively, conceding offensive aggression and creativity for the “certainty” and safety of FG attempts, decisions that cost them the game multiple times (and a game in which Bill O’Brien, in going for the eventual win in OT, did so because he didn’t want to drag the game out more and put that pressure on his kids). Against MSU, a late-game interception turned into –21 yards and the functional end of the game. Nebraska and Iowa were vary shades of domination obscured somewhat by some fortuitous scores, a game defense, and ineptitude on the part of the opponents. Even the dramatic win against NW felt hollow, needing a miracle kick to push a 9-9 game to overtime against a team that lost 7 of 8 to end the year. Along the way, the temperature of the offensive coordinator’s seat was best described on the Kelvin scale, major recruits were “keeping their options open”, and a vocal group of alumni were wondering if another shakeup needed to occur in Schembechler Hall.
Hoke had to make that call not because he had to prove he carried produce in his shorts, or because he wanted to add his name to arcane lists, or to make a certain agro part of the fanbase happy who question his toughness because he doesn’t scream at press conferences or throw stuff. Winning or losing this game wouldn’t have functionally changed the outcome for this season, unless I missed the rule change that gave you more “victories” for a close win over one team from Ohio instead of another. No, you make that 2-point call because in a season marked by offensive ineptitude and bungled opportunities, UM had a chance to remove all the uncertainty, all the coin flips, replays, and referees from the process and win or lose a game by matriculating a synthetic, oblong ball 3 yards. It didn’t work out, but by holding true to himself throughout this game Hoke showed that he was sick of playing it safe, at least for this afternoon.
Worst: And Yet…
I know, I just spent a couple hundred words espousing the virtues of Hoke’s decision, but in fairness I recognize the argument for kicking the tying extra point. As noted, neither defense was slowing the other offense down much, but in overtime it takes just one defensive play to end a game. UM had made some of those plays throughout the game, picking off an erratic Miller while also forcing a Hyde fumble. Gardner was having the second-best passing day in UM history, surpassed only by his game against IU earlier in the year, and the running game was functional and, at times, explosive (152 yards on 35 carries, a 4.3 ypc). Not surprisingly, Jeremy Gallon was adding to his legacy by notching the most receiving yards by a Wolverine against the Buckeyes (9/175/1), Funchess was still terrifying despite some drops, and Jake Butt and The Threat (combined 10/145/2) had emerged as competent alternative options.
Across the field, Miller had completed only 6 of 15 passes (though 2 were for TDs, including a long one to Smith due to the now-customary safety breakdown on a deep run), and while still a running threat was clearly not having a great day. Hyde rushed for an OSU record against UM (226 at 8.4 ypc) but had also fumbled, and I don’t know, maybe he was getting tired. While going for 2 showed faith in your offense it also was a bit of a white flag for your defense, and despite giving up 526 yards I thought the defense had played decent enough despite the Furman breakdown and their troubles taking down Miller and Hyde running the ball.
Beyond the play on the field, the conventional wisdom is you go for the tie at home and the win on the road; the idea is that road teams are subject to crowd noise and intimidation, unfamiliar sightlines and environments, “influential” referees, and various other factors. At home, you should extend the game out as needed, as all those factors working against your opponent are (in theory) in play for you, doubly so if you buy the notion that OSU would be reeling from the late UM comeback and might perform sub-optimally in overtime.
And while it stings a little to admit how Sparty it feels, playing spoiler to OSU’s perfect season isn’t exactly foreign to UM, and would provide one particularly delicious coda to an otherwise-uninspiring season.
For all these reasons and many more, I totally understand the argument for pushing the game into extra frames. Not saying I agree with it in practice, but had Hoke lined up Wile I wouldn’t have thrown my hands up in disgust.
Worst: Lining Up for Two, Again
One thing that DID drive me crazy was that final 2-point conversion play. Not because the first playcall was a bad idea; I like stacking WRs in short yardage because their dispersal can really disrupt a secondary and, at the very least, opens up some space in case Gardner wanted to run. I do like having at least one receiver on the other side just to keep the defense honest, but that’s a minor quibble.
But once UM lined up and OSU saw the formation, they called a TO to, I presume, align their defense in a different/better formation. So after the timeout, what did UM do? They lined up in (I believe) the same formation, or at least something functionally similar. I know there are limited plays for short-yardage situations, but at least give OSU a different look, a wrinkle, something that would provide some uncertainty. I’m not calling for the statute of liberty (though that would have been awesome), but something man. Instead, it felt like OSU knew the ball was going to Dileo before the snap and played it as such, picking off the pass basically as soon as it left Gardner’s hand. It felt like the “safe” call to make in that situation, and after a game full of ballsiness and dramatic comebacks, I’d have prefer something a bit different on the reset.
Worst: Hey, I Still Have Eligibility Remaining, Doesn’t Mean I Should Play Too
Now, I’m not questioning Josh Furman’s or Courtney Avery’s desire or inherent “Human Being”-ness, and I recognize that they are still a million times better football players than I have been or ever will be. That said, I remain flummoxed that both of them received so much playing time in such an important game after, at best, inconsistent seasons (and in Furman’s case, careers). Or in words that I uttered after that Smith TD, “Why the f**k aren’t Wilson and Gordon starting!” (censored for the small child in my arms that was trying to sleep between milk comas).
Given the run-heavy offense favored by OSU, Avery’s small stature made him a significant mismatch at FS compared to Gordon, who has about 30 pounds on him and had laid the wood on a couple of guys already this year. Plus, with Ross III out you had a sense that the safeties would need to be even more involved in the run game, or at least pose a threat to taking down the ballcarrier. And while I get that Josh Furman has always been touted as an above-average athlete, that hasn’t translated to on-field performance during his tenure at UM despite numerous opportunities. Trying to unearth some heretofore mystery diamond from the bench kind of makes sense against CMU or Akron, but against OSU I’d have hoped the roster changes would have been limited to injuries and a couple of trusted rotations.
Best: Gedeon’s Army
Pressed into service with Ross out of the lineup, I thought Ben Gedeon played decently, with the major caveat that OSU basically ran over UM all day. He had a nice sack of Miller early on, and tied for the lead on the team for solo and total tackles with 6. I’m not expecting him and Bolden to grade out particularly well, but he was a guy that people talked about having amazing athleticism and a mean streak, and I thought he acquitted himself out there well.
As for the defense overall, it was an inconsistent day that was alternately encouraging and infuriating. 526 total yards is below OSU’s season average, and on the 11 functional drives the defense forced 3 punts in addition to the 2 turnovers. Yes, the rest of OSU’s drives were all pretty epic scoring drives, but when you gave up 407 yards to Greg Davis you’ll take what you can get. The defense didn’t let OSU get out to its typical first-quarter lead (I don’t have the stat at hand, but they said during the game OSU had outscored opponents 200+ points to 40~ish to start the game), which kept the game manageable early on and let the offense establish itself a bit. And while Miller did throw for 2 TDs including the aforementioned blown coverage TD, he completed only 31% of his passes and generally looked pained throwing the ball.
All that said, the next UM-OSU game that doesn’t feature a massively blown coverage will be a welcome addition to my life. I know you can only do so much to prepare, but Mattison has seen this before by OSU and yet it continues to happen with a regularity that defies chance. Furthermore, there were a couple of throws early on by Miller that probably should have been caught for big gains but were either dropped or off-target, so perhaps his passing numbers are a bit deflated. Plus, when you are averaging almost 10 yards a carry, you really don’t need to throw the ball too much. It was a weird game all around so it is difficult to figure out how much of this was defensive breakdowns and how much was OSU being able to call “rock” with impunity because said rock is bigger than your LBs, but it remained a decent performance marred by some depressing moments.
A funny thing happened as I watched this game: the playcalling didn’t seem particularly different from past weeks. Sure, there were wrinkles: Gallon’s screen pass for 84 yards that he was Megatron’ed on (i.e. Calvin Johnson’s penchant last year of getting ankle-tackled just before the endzone), that delayed throwback screen to Fitz on the final scoring drive was a stroke of genius, and a running game that employed Gardner’s legs and the threat of an option to offset an aggressive OSU front 7. It felt like Borges spread the field out reasonably well, forcing a suspect OSU secondary to actually track receivers downfield instead of cheat toward the line, and (perhaps because of the long layoff between this game and the bowl) he seemed more willing to give Gardner the run-pass option that makes him so dangerous.
As noted earlier, young 98 had the second-best day passing in UM history while only being sacked 3 times (which feels like a win given how badly he’s been beaten up the past half-dozen games), and Green, Smith, and Toussaint were effective running the ball and, most importantly, limited the drive-killing TFLs (only 2 non-sack ones on the day). I’m not a connoisseur of blocking, but Gardner seemed to have enough time in the pocket to make his throws, and I saw linemen into the second level of blocking without 3 Buckeyes dogpiling the guy with the ball. So in that respect, it does feel like the offense “executed” to the coaches’ specifications. It only took 12 games, but I’m guessing Borges will be happy with how the offense moved the ball. That said…
Best: Is There a Tom Emanski for Tackling?
Because if there is, somebody needs to FedEx some copies to Luke Fickell immediately. While this wasn’t the worst tackling display I’ve witnessed (because, well, UM was once coached by GERG), the number of times OSU players failed to tackle properly was pretty amazing given the recruiting and talent bona fides on the field. I always thought South Carolina’s NFL Blitz-style “hitz!” were bad, but at least those attempts felt calculated. OSU had UM dead-to-rights on a couple of occasions (Funchess on a double-reverse, Jet Sweep by Gallon, an early Fitz run, Smith’s long run, a couple of Gardner scrambles) and either missed the initial tackle or failed to contain so that a big loss was either mitigated or even turned into a positive one. It was weird to see, especially in juxtaposition to UM that had trouble tackling Miller and Hyde because of their size but generally recorded TFLs when they were presented. I know Fickell is a disciple of Tressel and all, but Meyer’s lack of involvement on the defensive side puts a lot of pressure on the DC who may just not be up to the task. I know OSU ranks reasonably high on the FEI and advanced metrics for defense, but this unit has seemingly taken a pretty significant step back from those vintage Buckeye units, and at some point it is going to bite them in the ass when the offense slows down.
Worst: I’m Still Not Happy with the Offense
“But wait, they racked up over 600 yards and scored 41 points,” says you, conscientious blog reader. “They are improving, and maybe even turning the page on a new era of offensive competency in Ann Arbor.”
Well, maybe I’m too jaundiced or beaten down of a fan, but this offense is still basically the one that couldn’t crack 200 total yards 3 times this year (including last week), and who despite having record-setting days against IU and OSU is still 83rd in total offense. As noted above, the playcalling was a little better but also benefited immensely from OSU not tackling and otherwise failing to disrupt a unit that still seems uncertain of what to do, reliant on favored formations that most defenses have figured out pretty well.
What I think saved UM in this game is that they had some early success running the ball, which took pressure off Gardner throwing and didn’t allow OSU to run away with the game. I mean, OSU usually averages in the mid-70s in terms of number of plays, but UM was able to hold them to 61. Whereas in games past UM couldn’t string together coherent drives, here they were able to convert 8 of 14 3rd down plays as well as 1 of 2 4th down situations, keeping them on the field and never letting OSU get away even when they took the lead. Even with the restricted playbook Borges seems to be working from, being close on the scoreboard gave him the full complement to choose from, a luxury he’s had in other games but seemingly was unable to take advantage of. And it cannot be understated how the busted plays didn’t turn into 10+ yard losses; it kept the offense in manageable situations instead of the usual Sarlacc Pit 2nd/3rd-and-17 creates.
So I’m not dismissing the offensive performance out of hand; it was a revelation to see a competent unit move up and down the field with dynamic and successful plays. The offensive staff had a vision and they largely followed through on it, and that should be commended. But this felt a bit like the IU game wherein the offense ran its plays and OSU simply didn’t adjust/stop them like other teams have done before. Perhaps the Ohio governor’s decision to ban the letter ‘M’ meant the Buckeye defensive staff failed to check the mail for gametapes of the UM offense, because it certainly didn’t feel like Borges was breaking out anything demonstrably new, only that he seemed less afraid of spreading the field out and giving Gardner a chance to make plays in space. If I had any faith that would be the core of the offense going forward then I’d be less sanguine, but I’ve seen this tease before and, frankly, I’m not buying that he’s just doing this to pay for college.
Best: Brian’s Predictions
At the start of the season, Brian made some predictions for the offense. A couple of them were comically off (see improved rushing offense, Al Borges seems like a better coordinator), while others hewed closer to reality (Funchess blowing up happened a bit, but he’s struggled the last couple of weeks; Dileo was underutilized but was also injured for half the year). But the one he was dead on was about Gardner and Gallon solidifying their mind-meld, resulting in Gallon challenging Braylon’s best season. Right now, he’s about 50 yards short of the record, so expect to see this little jumpy mountain goat in the rarefied air of the great WRs at UM after the bowl game. It continues to amaze me that a Pomeroy candidate became one of the most prolific and dangerous deep threats AND endzone targets in history, but it was amazing to watch.
Worst: State of the Blog or
Best: Leave Brian Alone!
For those who may have missed the twitter feed, Brian voiced his displeasure with a subset of the UM fanbase that took him to task for the dour tone the blog has taken in recent weeks. Like a completely unnecessary best-of album, people chimed in with all the hits against MGoBlog and Brian’s take on the team. Some argued that he was being overly dramatic and whiny, that he didn’t understand football like a former player and thus his analysis was suspect, that he held himself in too high esteem for being a lowly blogger, and that he wasn’t a real fan because he publicly questioned the direction of the team and, I don’t know, wasn’t ecstatic at losing the 9th time in 10 chances against OSU. Basically, it was every comment thread on the site the past 2-3 weeks, compressed into 140 characters.
Now, I don’t expect a single person to give a crap what I’m about to say. The fact you have read this far makes me think you’re just bored and figure you won’t be getting a UFR soon enough so you might as well check out all of the content up right now. I’ve never really played organized football save a couple of weeks in PeeWee, I’m not a guy who can break down defenses or offenses with particular alacrity, and I’m not a huge “big ideas” writer either. I’m a moderately-intelligent alum who likes to watch football and cares about UM winning to the extent that I like nice things to happen to my alma mater. And I don’t have a dog in this fight; this blog would be fine without my diary, but I also find this site a nice pressure release from life and, I don’t know, helps me stretch out and flex a writing muscle that otherwise is hemmed in by my duties as a software programmer and occasional attorney.
So all that said, I’m sick of people acting as if this blog (or more particularly, Brian) needs to conform to their world-view for it to remain relevant. Now, I’m not defending Brian; he doesn’t need my help and I doubt gives two shits what I think. But as a loyal reader who enjoys the content and tone of this site, I’m tired of the meta arguments popping up that do nothing more than regurgitate the same 3-4 arguments for 50+ comments. This is a site on the web that talks about UM football from a particular perspective, no different than the other dozen or so blogs listed to your left. The only difference is that this space is the most prominent and, I guess, “influential” due to its size. But at its core, the arguments always feel like complaints about opinions, that Brian’s should be more in touch with their worldview because their voice needs to be heard/promoted.
This might sound esoteric, but I blame the concept of the “Internet” for this phenomenon wherein people come to expect free content to be customized for their pleasure, and are offended when it doesn’t happen because, hell, they can watch coaching fat-head supercuts on demand so dance monkey, dance. If you don’t like how the site is run or its content, go somewhere else. There are numerous sites I used to visit that I stopped when they became undesirable, and at no point did I tweet or email the proprietor and call him a “pussy” or question his writing style, nor did I provide unsolicited advice on how to “keep” me around by changing the content. For some reason, while people love the idea of the personalized echo chamber on the net, they are dead-set set against doing the legwork to find it, instead demanding the places they usually visit to do that work for them.
Listen, I’m not a fan of overly emo prose for its own sake, and I’ve taken people to task here for popular sentiments I disagree with. Conflicting opinions are and should be welcome everywhere, and anyone who thinks this site is overly draconian in its bannings should look at those instances carefully. But the number of people who say they “haven’t read the site in years” and “hate what happened to it” while still following the official twitter feed and maintaining accounts boggles my mind. Go somewhere else if it bothers you this much, or stick around and be productive, but the absolutely LEAST productive and MOST condescending thing you can do is provide “real talk” about one of the most popular football sites on the internet because you wish it wasn’t such a downer sometimes, man.
The team had an up-and-down season; I looked over my old diaries and it feels like ages ago I was calling this offense one of the best in recent memory. You want to focus on how “close” the team was to not being 7-5, go play horseshoes or hand grenades. The team probably isn’t as bad as it looks (only the MSU loss felt like a game UM wasn’t in late), but losing by a point to an overrated OSU team doesn’t mitigate the season-long struggles to run the ball and develop cohesive line play, implement a coherent offensive philosophy, and otherwise evolve and improve in year 3 of the Brady Hoke era. I still think there needs to be a shakeup on the offensive side of the ball, and unless Borges makes an about-face from a schematic standpoint expect next year to be as disjointed as this one, just without the most-prolific WR in team history and two NFL OTs to protect Devin Gardner.
For those who TL;DR’ed this section, I guess I’m #TeamBrian, #gosomewhereelse, #twitteristheworst, #ontherinterneteveryoneknowswhenyouareadouche.
Best: The Seniors
I’ll keep this brief: it’s a small class (which says something about why the team has struggled this year), but one with a couple of memorable players – Lewan, Gallon – and a bunch of grinders who stuck it out. I know it feels like every season people are trumpeting the outgoing players for sticking around during a tumultuous time, but these kids have seen the highs and lows of the last RR year, the Process, and the upheaval of these past couple seasons. They deserve better than 7-5 and a meh bowl game, but all was not for naught. They have their memories, from the big wins against OSU, MSU, VT, and ND, to a BCS win against VT, to (a perhaps somewhat hollow) 4 straight winning seasons. This isn’t the most accomplished or memorable group of seniors, but in many ways they bare the scars of UM’s transition into modern football era, and hopefully those will help this team going forward. Regardless, thanks to the seniors for their play this season and throughout their careers.
Best: One More Game!
It’s going to be a mediocre bowl game against an SEC team (probably), but so be it. After sitting through two successive bowl-less years, any time you can play and practice another month and send the seniors home with a win somewhere in Florida shouldn’t be downplayed. Next year will be different because of realignment and player losses, but for now this team has another game to play, meaning one more week to agonize, commiserate, debate, and cheer on Team 134.
Worst: Even Our Leader Has Fallen
I'm going to mail it in this week, guys. Just know that ahead of time.
— mgoblog (@mgoblog) November 23, 2013
Look what you’ve done to him, Michigan Football! His e-blood is on your hands!
Worst: Pretty Meta
I’m warning you all in advance that this post is going to be less about the game and more holistic. Here’s why UM lost this game: Iowa scored 17 points in the 2nd half while UM’s offense recorded 6 fricking yards before their last drive of the game. That ended in a fumble from Devin Gardner (who is probably injured). Because of course that’s how a game against Iowa should end.
If you want more detailed analysis of the actual reasons behind UM losing to Iowa, stick around for the UFR and the other diaries and you’ll get more than enough information. That ain’t me, and while I’ll provide some numbers and stats I’m not going to drop into the muck too heavily this post.
Best: It’s Still Real To Me!
Basically since the debacle against MSU, the sentiment around this team is that the fans are checking out because, well, this isn’t a particularly good team and watching them lose isn’t any normal person’s idea of a good time. The offense remains historically awful against competent opponents (and Minnesota, apparently), playing Devin Gardner behind this offensive line could very well violate multiple parts of the Geneva Convention protocols, and the defense continues to solider on despite talent and support issues. It is an unwatchable team not in the sense that it is a bunch of thugs or jerks, but in the way a snuff film wouldn’t wind up on my Netflix queue. It’s hard to watch something you care about, played by people who seem genial and passionate, get destroyed week in, week out. No one could be blamed for spending these last weekends of the fall enjoying time with family, drinking your artisanal beers, and basically doing ANYTHING that doesn’t turn otters into Brooks from Shawshank Redemption.
And yet, I still can’t find it in myself to turn off these games. I know why, of course: there are only 13-14 games a year, and when times are good or at least exciting there is nothing better to watch. And when the team isn’t that good (which, let’s be honest, started well before RR’s tenure made it official), the calcified memories of former greatness and the diminishing hope of a return keep me coming back. And despite the losses and the continuing sense that UM is still on the wrong side of history, I’ll keep watching and coming back to watch, even games like this when you could feel the loss coming after Iowa’s first drive of the 2nd half. And in all likelihood, my kids will love watching UM football as much as me, even when they realize that patch of missing hair isn’t because Dad was pranked. But this simply cannot end soon enough for me, and next week’s OSU game will likely get the background treatment as I shop online, listen to music, and otherwise tool around the apartment.
Best: Next Year’s Defense
I usually start these posts focusing on the offense, since it tends to be have the easier-to-identify storylines and players and, well, your offense usually has to score points to win games. But that short-changes the defense, muting their performance because of narrative difficulties. So in order to rectify this slight once, I’m going to start by praising this defense, which put forth an inspiring performance that was one of its best of the year.
The stats weren’t great (24 points from 407 total yards at 5.4 ypp), but this defense did more than enough to secure a victory. It forced 4 TOs, including 3 INTs, one which was returned for a TD, and added a turnover on downs despite consistently being put in sub-optimal positions thanks to some early punting issues as well as the continued ineptitude of the offense to even gain a first down. In fact, the defense only really started to struggle when both Morgan and Ross were lost to injuries and the cumulative play count (76 plays versus 57 run by UM) simply caught up to them. Perhaps a truly elite defense could have found some way to score another TD or not allowed the tying and go-ahead scores late in the 4th quarter, but you look at the players on the field and their experience and it is difficult not to see how good this unit will be going forward.
So Jake Ryan seems to be rounding into form nicely. His pressure of Rudock led to Beyer’s pick-six, and for much of the first half he was all over the field. He seemed less involved as the game dragged on, but given his expected recovery time anything he’s been able to provide this season is encouraging. Of course, given how the season has progressed it might have been nice had he been able to obtain an injury redshirt (?) instead of wasting it on a lost year, but nobody could have expected quite such an implosion.
Clark recorded 2.5 more TFLs and was generally a terror out there; presuming he continues to mature at this pace he could finally live up to some of the hype next year. Henry and Wormley looked strong as well, including a bullrush by Wormley that I will call a MANSACK because I am an 11-year-old hopped up on Pixie Sticks. And both Taylor and Countess had interceptions while largely keeping Iowa’s passing attack in check (the long completion to Smith was mostly on Avery, who let Smith get by him and then compounded that mistake by getting tangled up with another tackler). It isn’t a great unit, and I remain confused as to why guys like Wilson and the freshmen DBs get inconsistent minutes, but the defense will be the bedrock of next year’s team and should be a strength for years to come.
Worst: Next Year’s Offense
Do I think an offense that couldn’t get a first down in the 2nd half until the final drive and had 6 total yards until that point is going to be better next year without its two NFL tackles, record-setting WR, and competent-ish RB?
There’s nobody to really blame anymore. There is an alternate universe in which Al Borges’s gameplan scores points (and in at least one of those universes he is a clown made of candy), and Devin Gardner has not so much regressed as devolved into a QB who is so afraid/warned against making bad decisions in the flow of the game that he makes bad decisions haltingly throughout the game instead. The funny thing is, of course, is that it really isn’t his fault, since his ribs and spleen are still looking around for Frank his gallbladder, which is probably still in East Lansing.
The offensive line is sometimes able to block on running or passing downs, but never consistently and sometimes spectacularly badly. In order to at least sometimes keep the opposition from destroying the offensive play at the snap, so many players are dedicated to blocking that 1 or 2 receivers are available on passing plays, resulting in Gardner surveying the blanketed field in a panic before taking off on a (usually) ill-advised scramble. In this game Iowa only recorded a single sack, which has to be some type of record*, but added 10 more TFLs to add to UM’s nation-leading total. Gardner wasn’t helped by a couple of key drops by Funchess and Gallon, including a couple in the second half that would have extended drives. And a week after a semi-competent rushing attack, Derrick Green and Fitz Toussaint recorded 35 yards on 17 carries, with a long of 9. Execution or gameplan, at least this clownshow is coming to an end.
*At some point this year, UM was one of the national leaders in sacks allowed, with only 12 total before playing MSU. Now? One of the worst.
Worst: It’s a Noah’s Ark of Beaten Animals
Ace and others noted a continuation of a disturbing trend for the offense: over-reliance on a play that worked despite the fact that the other team was clearly adapting to it. Last week it was the bootleg/designed QB run in short yardage; this game, it felt like every run in the first half was initiated with a fake bubble screen pass, and on two consecutive plays in the 2nd half Al Borges called for a reverse to Funchess (which got 10 yards) followed by a functional reverse to Gallon which, unsurprisingly resulted in a 4 yard loss. People joke about a lizard brain with Al Borges, but at this point it isn’t so much a lizard response as it is a record skipping in the most Milli Vanilli way possible. He seemingly remains trapped in the same playcall until the drive ends, forgetting that his opponents are watching the same game and aren’t suffering from brain damage.
My issue with the playcalling isn’t that the plays are objectively bad; many of them should work. But after 11 games, the team still lacks an offensive identity that is reproducible game-to-game, and saying “we didn’t execute” whitewashes over this incoherence. There are plays in every game where a player makes the wrong decision or misses the right hole and the play dies; that happens to everyone. But this team and this offensive philosophy is so flawed and inconsistent that they can’t “luck” into positive plays that should occur even when breakdowns occur.
That there is no coherence, no consistency down-to-down, is hard to describe, but I’ll try. When Iowa started to assert itself at the end of the game, they did so by stringing together plays that consistently netted them positive yards. They handed off to the RB and he gained 3-4 yards, so they did it again and 3-4 more yards were ceded by the defense. Each play drew upon the previous and something called “momentum” took hold, and the Hawkeye offense was consistently able to move the ball. Well, that virtually never happens with UM. If one play gets them 4 yards, the next play can just as easily explode into a 10-yard loss. A pass to Gallon gets you to 2nd-and-1? Well, let’s call a couple of failed runs and punt. That happened in this game, it happened against PSU, it led to a 4th-and-forever punt against MSU, and it keeps happening. The offense has gone from idiosyncratic drive-to-drive to unpredictable play-to-play.
I know the UFR showed “growth” running the ball, but let’s remember that was against a NW team that hasn’t won a game since before Halloween. The passing game has devolved from a unit of strength to a bunch of 2-route formations that competent defense can stop with little effort, and for the third time this year UM didn’t crack 200 yards in total offense. In all likelihood Al Borges is going to be back next year, and I pray for the residents of the Detroit Zoo that he doesn’t take a shining to one of the giraffes.
Worst: The Replacements
So I saw quite a few people calling for Morris to get some meaningful snaps as the game spiraled out of control with UM leading by 14 points. This only intensified as Iowa poured it on by tying the score and taking the lead, culminating in the humiliation of having to watch Devin Gardner try to mount a meaingless comeback down 3 insurmountable points late in the game.
Oh, I’m sorry. How terribly embarrassing. I forgot to include the <sarcasm> font before posting. Maybe this helps.
I understand everyone’s disappointment with how the season has turned out, and burning Shane Morris’s red shirt on a couple of meaningless snaps against CMU and falling on his face against MSU is an indictment of early-Hoke recruiting (though it is pretty weak). But if anyone thinks putting him out there would be even remotely productive for anyone involved is simply foolish or overly reactionary. People have seen how bad Gardner has been playing behind this rickety line and with whatever tutelage his OC/QB coach has provided. Now imagine a smaller kid with less mobility trying to stay alive back there, and one who probably hasn’t even received 1/12th of Borges’s focus as a mentor. Hell, the only reason TO play Morris at this point is the indefinable hope that Borges hasn’t ruined him yet. I suspect he’ll see some time against OSU because there is little chance Gardner will be upright after that defensive line tees off on him, but it will not be pretty and nothing good will come of it.
Worst: Who Let Mr. Freeze Out of Arkham?
At some point during the game it was mentioned that Saturday’s weather was the coldest for a gameday at Kinnick, with 17 degrees mixed with 20+ mph winds resulting in near-zero windchill. Though I’m from Michigan and am still somewhat accustomed to the freezing temperatures that are common at this time, my years in New York, with its somewhat-ocean-moderated temperatures, copious coffee shops, and hellish subways, has largely shielded me from these bone-chilling temperatures.
From the initial kickoff, though, you could tell the weather would play a significant role in this game. Iowa’s first FG was quite high and wide, which tends to happen when you are kicking frozen pigs. And Wile’s first couple of punts into the wind averaged out to about 25 yards, giving Iowa great field position (though Wile was able to boom a couple of nice punts later on to flip the field). Going into the 4th quarter BTN showed that the average play into the wind was around 3 ypp and nearly doubled when the wind was to the offense’s back, and while Iowa’s late-game runs evened out those numbers a bit both teams were clearly affected by the cold temperatures. Of course, you’d figure that would have helped the team with the 14-point lead…
Worst: Hey Florida, is that supposed to make me feel better?
So Florida nearly pulled the upset against Georgia Southern this weekend. I saw some people on Twitter and other places say that at least Gator fans will understand how Michigan feels. First, nothing will ever replace the Horror, as that loss has basically hung over this team for 6 years. Secondly, at least UF will likely fire the guy who is running that flaming barge and find someone, anyone who is an improvement. I still believe in Hoke, but there feels like a very small chance that there will be a noticeable shakeup on this staff, and I’m not sure what the endgame will be without it. So while it is humorous that Florida couldn’t keep pace with a SoCon school, it doesn’t really take the sting out of the past 2 months.
Worst: That Final Offensive Drive
Pretty nonsensical, right? Well, this makes about as much sense as UM’s dogged insistence on running the ball on their last offensive drive despite ample proof it wasn’t going to work and would instead basically burn downs and clock. Outside of Green’s 4-yard run on the first play, UM ran the ball four more times for 4 yards (8 of which on that final run that Gardner fumbled) while throwing for 31 on two passes. I get wanting to keep the defense “honest” by not purely passing and exposing your poor pass protection to blitzing LBs, but you’ve had 20-some-odd minutes of offense to establish the run and it’s netted you 2ypc; maybe it’s just not your day. But wasting time and downs on these plays made no sense, put the offense in worse positions, and drove me insane. Last week UM got lucky that they somehow were able to get that kick off despite horrible clock management; this week their playcalling put them in tough positions all day despite having the lead for most of the game, and helped to doom their last gasp at escaping Iowa with the win.
Best: It’s Almost Over
So next week is OSU and then, I don’t know, Texas for some crappy bowl game. I don’t expect the OSU game to be particularly competitive, which is pretty tragic since this Buckeye outfit isn’t a juggernaut; they’re probably a 10-win team that got some scheduling luck and may very well lose to Alabama or FSU in the MNC game. But this week is shaping up to be the least exciting one I can remember leading up to the game, and that includes those RR years. At least then you had a sense that maybe the offense could surprise OSU for a bit; right now UM cracking 200 yards of total offense would be their Rose Bowl. I expect UM to keep it close early on because of the home field and emotions, but it’s going to get ugly, and probably sooner than you think.
Best: The Gibbons
In baseball, scoring the game-winning run(s) in your final at-bat is regarded as a “walk-off.” The connotation is that the player smoothly performed his duty so well (usually via a homerun) that he can “walk” the bases and enjoy the adulation of a job well done. Well, in adding to his legacy of game-tieing/winning kicks, Brendan Gibbons introduced a new word to the vernacular for game-winning plays: the “Gibbons”. With chaos around him and the weight of the season on his shoulders, he gave this team life that ultimately led them to a stirring victory and, perhaps, changed the final chapters of this wayward football season. After the Sugar Bowl we all thought of Gibbons as a brunette-loving Keith Stone, but after yesterday’s game he has entered into the UM lexicon like “New Math”/“Braylonfest”, “Dilithium”, “Mercury”, the “Threat”, and all of the other cherished moments in UM lore.
Much has been made recently about Gibbons's "struggles" kicking the ball, though if you look at his season stats it was basically a couple of blocked/missed kicks against PSU that were the nadir of his season thus far. Outside of that wacky game, he’s been pretty solid all year; if anything, he’s suffered a bit of regression from his record-setting 16-straight FGs made between last season and this one. His wobbly make last week happens to virtually every kicker from time to time, and any inkling of a “meltdown” was quelled when he drilled his first two FGs into the swirling Evanston wind.
But then the least inspiring 2-minute drive started, and you didn’t know if he’d even have a chance to attempt a makeable kick to tie the game, especially given the playcalling and overall lack of urgency seemingly displayed by the team as it tried to tie the game (I’ll get into that with greater detail below). Throw in a 13-yard sack and a final completion to Gallon with about 13 seconds left and the clock running, and all seemed lost. But then something magical happened, and a team that was so discombobulated that it had to convert two 4th-and-4s on the last drive was able to switch out personnel in mere seconds, spot a wet ball, and send the game into overtime with a no-doubt-about-it (oh gawd, I’m starting to talk like Berman) 44 yarder. Like most readers of this blog, I’ve not been a fan of the special team’s reliance on an archaic punt formation, blocking on FGs, or returns, but this squad and its coach deserve immense credit for executing when it was needed most. I’d also like to point out the great slide by Dileo to get into his holder position, which helped save a second or two that was obviously needed to get the play off.
Best: Northwestern: The ‘Eat Your Vegetables, There are Starving Kids in X’ of College Football
It’s a bit cliche, but I remember my mom whipping out the tired “eat your food, there are kids with far less around the world” argument when I wouldn’t finish my broccoli. Of course, little did she know that broccoli is the most deadly of the vegetables. Regardless, the point was to remind me that there were people out there with it worse off, and not to take for granted the bountiful opportunities before me.
Well, for UM fans those starving children are Northwestern. After a 4-0 start, NW has lost 6 straight, including one game on a last-second Hail Mary from Cereal Empire Progeny Ron Kellogg III and another after being Gibbons’ed with about a second left. Unless they somehow pull off an epic upset against MSU, they will finish with a losing record before they match up against Illinois, and a season that began with talk of a Rose Bowl bid will, at best, end with them playing in some god-forsaken shanty-town (or Detroit) in a late-December bowl game named after a Dave Brandon’s Mortal Enemy or the state in which it is held. So the next time you complain about being “only” 7-3, remember that there are a bunch of future hedge fund associates and medical school colleagues being bummed out for a couple more weeks.
Worst: This is Still the Offense
Lost in the OT victory is the fact this team had 6 points until about 2 seconds left in regulation, and failed to convert on a 3rd down play until OT (going 0-13 in the process). 17 of 24 completions, and 176 of 226 total passing yards, went to Gallon and Funchess, which in one sense feels like a revelation but on the other hand highlights just how dependent this team is on those two winning individual matchups. When the opposition allows it, this is a pretty good receiving core; when the defense can get to Devin and/or bracket the two in coverage there doesn’t appear to be a third option unless Butt is starting to take control of the position (5 catches for 50 yards and a TD the past two weeks). And though I get into it with greater detail below, the running game had a slightly below-average performance, which given the past two weeks makes them f’ing Army out there.
My issue with the offensive gameplan remains the reliance on elements that simply don’t work with nearly enough consistency to warrant the reliance we’ve seen thus far. The announcers noted on that last drive of regulation how the team was able to complete a couple of short passes, and throughout the game it did feel like there was a concerted effort to pick away with short and intermediate routes at times. But there were still far too many two-route formations that screamed pass (or Devin scrambles), and I found myself guessing the offensive call about 75% even with the added wrinkles. And at the most minor hint of establishing a running game, the playcall inevitably came in for a long play-action pass that rarely hit because, again, NW hadn’t been burned enough for them to really start over-playing against the run. Ultimately the game devolved into the Devin Gardner show, which worked because it put the ball in the hands of the most dangerous player on the offense and produced mismatches because the defense had to react to real uncertainty.
I know people will complain that I am focusing too heavily on the negatives and am showing my anti-Borges agenda, and I’ll cop to thinking the guy shouldn’t be the OC anymore. But the fact remains that over the past 12 quarters of regulation, the team has scored exactly 1 TD, and mounted 7 drives of 50 yards or more out of a total of 34 real drives. Again, ignoring the major outlier that was Indiana, this team has averaged about 25 points a game during the conference season, and that includes a pair of 3OT games. It’s a unit that relies on its defense to keep the game close (and at times carve out decent chunks of yardage), and for the money being spent on this staff I’d have expected a more coherent performance even given the weather conditions.
Best: Let Them Play!
It doesn’t seem like too many people took issue with Hoke’s decision to go for the lead with about 5 minutes left in the 4th quarter, and throw my hat into the camp that thought it was the right call. Sure, going for the tie is fine, but this offense hadn’t been able to move the ball much at all throughout the game, and being that close to a game-winning TD made it a no-brainer. At worst you leave NW with poor field position and facing a defense that had largely stymied them all day, and a TD forces NW to drive all the way down the field for the win. With heavy winds and a wet field, that would have been a tall order. Plus, this team had already seemingly played for a tie since the 1st quarter, so it was nice to see Hoke attack convention despite the less-than-optimal results.
To say that Devin Gardner had a “variable” game against Northwestern would be to insult the notions of weak typing and celestial bodies. By raw numbers, Gardner had a slightly below-average game (24/43/226/1TD/0INT) mitigated somewhat by some nasty weather and a remarkably stout Wildcat pass defense. Interspersed amongst those 19 incompletions, though, were a number of throws that this ball-hawking NW defense could have easily caught and returned for TDs, and of which would likely have dramatically altered the outcome of this game. On the first drive along, Gardner threw at least two balls that bounced off defenders’ hands with nothing by grass between them and the endzone, to even the final drive of regulation where a game-ending INT simply slipped away from a DB’s grasp.
And most of these near-turnovers were simply due to bad throws or misreading coverage, from locking onto Funchess on the sideline despite a LB clearly lurking not two steps away to throwing at Innerspace-sized windows. Perhaps it was cosmic penance for some of the wacky interceptions that occurred earlier in the year or Gardner’s private incantations to drive out bad spirits, but Northwestern left dozens of points on that field, any of which would have eliminated the insanity that led to UM’s win. On one hand it was further evidence that Gardner has a great deal maturation ahead of him if the mental aspects of his game are to catch up to his physical skillset, taking him from an inconsistent talent to a transcendent one. On the other, though, it was the first time in weeks that it felt like Gardner was even thinking of throwing the ball aggressively, and credit for this revelation should go to both him and Borges. It wasn’t smooth sailing by any stretch, but at this point in the year I’d rather see them taking chances than going deeper into the well-fortified shell they’ve seemingly occupied since PSU (save for the And-1 mixtape that was IU).
Worst: Out with the Old Poor Damn Toussaint, In with the They Can’t Be Worse
I am an avowed Fitz fan, and have been for most of the year. I thought his struggles running the ball mostly had to do with the offensive line, and I still wouldn’t be surprised to see him catch on in the NFL as a free agent for at least a cup of coffee. He still seems to possess the shiftiness and speed that made him so promising a couple of years ago, even though I’m sure his injuries have taken a toll. And as others have noted, Fred Jackson is a lot of things but “coach able to develop RBs beyond their natural talents” maybe isn’t one of them. But as the past couple of weeks have shown, his struggles as a blocker on passing downs are not going away, and considering he’s a senior who has recorded 26 yards total the past 2 weeks and maybe, possibly a little injured, it was time for a change to Green and Smith.
With the two freshmen in the lineup, the team “rolled” for 4.4 yards per carry from the RB position, and generally looked semi-competent rushing the ball even though even the 4.4 was goosed by two long runs of 23 and 16 yards. Drop those two long runs and the average was closer to 3.2 ypc, but for the first time in a couple of weeks there felt like the threat of running the ball was there for the Wolverines.
Now, caveats aplenty do apply. NW still recorded 10 TFL including 5 sacks, and a couple of those came from said freshmen whiffing on blocks just as badly as Fitz. Green and Smith were intermittently able to run after first contact, but against a mediocre rushing unit in the rain I’d be careful about extrapolating too much. Next week against Iowa will be a truer test, and I’d be surprised if they saw similar success against a decent Hawkeye front 7. It seems a bit unfair to pull Fitz after having him suffer running against the best rushing defense in the country and a hyper-aggressive Cornhusker unit that was calling the offensive plays at the line, but this being results-based grading I suspect his role will be further minimized until such time as Green and/or Smith struggle to run the ball effectively. That may be after the 1st quarter next week, but until then this may be the ignominious end to the star-crossed UM career of PDT.
Best: 9 Points the Hard Way
Some will issue with the fact that I questioned the offensive playcalling despite the weather conditions while ignoring the fact that NW only scored 9 points in regulation. And yes, this particular NW outfit doesn’t possess the dynamic offensive talent we’ve come to expect from the Wildcats, even with Colter and Siemian on the field. Still, the defense faced 11 drives and forced punts on 8 of them, which was doubly impressive given the fact that NW was coming off a bye week and (outside of Venric Marc) had its full complement of offensive weapons. The defense still held the Wildcats to 308 yards on 73 plays in regulation, including a Nordic Minnesota-esque 16-play FG drive on NW’s first drive that (along with UM’s own 12-play FG march) basically ate up the 1st quarter. And perhaps most inspiringly, the unit held its own late in the game, forcing punts on all three 4th-quarter possessions while only giving up about 55 yards.
That said, the unit remains inconsistent. It still can’t produce much in the way of an organic pass rush, though it was able to record two sacks, including Jibreel Black’s final drive-crushing one in OT. It largely kept NW from exposing the edge or gaining many yards after initial contact, and NW averaged under 3 ypc despite running the ball 49 times. And perhaps most excitingly, most completions tended to end with near-immediate tackles, limiting the YAC that is the bread-and-butter of the best spread offenses.
I find it hard to write much more about the defense, simply because it has been remarkably consistent save for about half of the IU game. It bends more than I’d like, but it has always kept UM in the game and rarely blows assignments; in short, it looks well-coached despite having sub-optimal talent. Most importantly, I see how incremental improvements can turn it into a championship-level defense, and the coaches and players seem to have bought into the system that will get them there. Maybe they’ll get blown out of the water by OSU or the bowl opponent, but right now this feels like the next evolutionary step in a dominant defense.
Best: Frank the Tank
I’ll admit to not being a firm believer in the Frank Clark Hype Machine when it left the station at the beginning of the year, but I wanted to point out how nicely he’s come along. Early in the year he just looked like an athlete trying to figure out how to play football; now he seems to get how to play his position with a fair bit of consistency. He isn’t perfect by any means and I’m not sure he’ll ever be a dominant end, but now when a play breaks down it isn’t usually because of something dumb he did, and it does seem like teams are starting to have to gameplan a bit to stop him. I’m not really able to dedicate the time to analyze the tape to confirm how much of an improvement he’s made, but the UFRs have been showing a steady improvement by him as well as Black as the year has progressed.
The game featured a total of 4 penalties for 35 yards, which given the pedigrees of the teams (and the sometime-haughtiness of the fanbases) probably shouldn’t surprise anyone. And unlike in years past, Pat Fitzgerald didn’t jump around and celebrate a late hit, so it was downright civilized in Evanston.
Best/Worst: Freedom is the only way now!
An obvious best for Veterans Day and the overall recognition of the service provided by those in uniform. I’m not getting into the underlying political issues surrounding the development and use of the U.S. military during both wartime and peactime, but only applauding a day that recognizes many of the sacrifices made by those in the military. It always seems a bit weird when sports teams don one-off uniforms designed to recognize the military because they can feel a bit tone-def or commercial, but I tend to believe their hearts are in the right place.
That said, my gawd were those Northwestern uniforms weird looking. I’m usually not a guy who cares about sartorial choices, but from the faux-tattered flag helmets, the military-academy-approved names such as Freedom, Commitment, and Courage nameplates, to the obscene amount of gray during an overcast and dreary game which would end under the lights, it was a bit too jarring especially given the fact Veteran’s Day was nearly a week ago. Looking back, it felt a bit like the Washington Generals were trying to play football, which should have been a good sign for the Wolverines. And unlike UM and their CEO AD, this didn’t feel like an attempt by the NW brass to rake in money; it just felt like good intentions with meh implementation.
Worst: All These High Horses Sure Do Produce a Bunch of Sh*t
So I thought this was settled when it had to be stated AGAIN not to attack players via social media and question their “heart” and “dedication”, but as I delved through the open threads and twitter I saw a number of people say the “Player X (usually Gardner) should be benched” because he was too dumb, too lazy, etc. to play the position. Now, I’m an avowed opponent of Feelings-Ball, and nothing drives me crazier than (usually older) fans challenging the intelligence and dedication of college kids playing a game. So let me again state to all those out there: STOP QUESTIONNING THE INTELLIGENCE AND DEDICATION OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYERS. I’m happy you made it to the Regional finals with your HS team back in 1998 (Go Cougars!), but there is about a 0% chance that most of the Internet could even play a whole series of downs against this level of competition without dying, let alone perform as well as most of these kids have this season. That doesn’t mean you can’t take issue with the results (i.e. pointing out the offensive line has struggled is just making a factual observation; saying that it is because one of the linemen is lazy and stupid is being a dick).
In particular, Devin’s struggles are not because he doesn’t “get” the offense worse than Morris (or more importantly, the mythic Morris who isn’t a freshman playing behind a pretty poor offensive line), but because he is playing in a sub-optimal situation while still learning whatever offensive philosophy the coaches are trying to install along with the other 10 guys on offense. I don’t think there is a racial component involved in much of this taunting (I’d be foolish to believe there isn’t a segment because I saw the same with Denard), since John Navarre is one of the most “classic” QB’s you’ll ever see and people were merciless with him when he played at UM. And while the great “execution” versus “coaching” debate remains just as lively as ever here, you can make the argument about the play on the field without questioning the intrinsic characteristics of the players involved.
Best: False or Real, I’ll Take All the Hope You’ve Got!
Yes it was Northwestern and it was a crazy finish, but this team now has a chance to finish the season with some momentum if they can play up to Iowa and then, maybe, stay competitive with OSU. While I’d be happy with a split, the Buckeyes showed just enough weakness against Illinois to give me a sense that this game could be interesting, and at home in a rivalry you never know. And seeing as how the Buckeyes were passed over by Baylor and Oregon is nipping at their heels, UM could still at least play spoiler like they did during most of Cooper’s run. And along the way, UM still could finish with 10 wins, which would be a pretty amazing accomplishment given the way this season has unfolded.
This is going to be reference-heavy. I have a 4-day old at home and caught much of this game on DVR. I figure, if the coaching staff didn’t feel like rubbing two brain cells together before playing the Cornhuskers, no reason I should break a sweat.
Best: Groundhog Day!
So you know how last week I complained about an incoherent offensive strategy, a continued failure to accept that running the ball just wasn’t possible with this outfit, struggles along the offensive line and how it was destroying Devin Gardner from the inside, and a general apathy toward the offensive coaching staff in particular and Hoke’s coaching in general? Well, ask me again about the groundhog, because this week’s game featured the exact same complaints. Yippee for copy-paste!
Worst: Simulate Mode
As anyone who has played recent incarnations of Madden and/or NCAA football know, there is an option during games to “simulate” a set number of plays/possessions to speed up the game. Usually the simulation follows predictable patterns for the team based on a combination of their empirical stats and rankings as well as current game trends; if you are playing Navy a simulated drive for the Midshipmen is basically 8 straight runs followed by a long playaction pass, or if you are the Lions it’s usually a bunch of passes to Megatron followed by an interception. Basically, it works best if you know how your team typically performs in a vacuum and then consider the opponent; you won’t be surprised if you are Alabama versus random FCS East school, but Akron probably isn’t holding on against OSU if you need to take a breather. While I usually am loathe to use this option because my inner Old Ball Coach loves to run up the score, I’ll sometimes use it on defense just to get the ball back to score quicker.
At this point in the season, I’m ready for ABC/ESPN/ESPN2/ESPN9mygawdwhydoihavetowatchthisanymore to cut to a more interesting game when UM is on offense and then just update us with a little box score four plays later with the outcome. Basically, NFL Redzone but in reverse. At least with the defense, something interesting could happen, something that highlights thoughtful coaching and semi-efficient execution of a plan. With Al Borges’ cut-rate Old Country Buffet offense, all I get as a fan is a couple of minutes to question my sanity and marvel at a team with a handful of NFL draft picks on the offensive line, a record-setting WR, a physical mismatch at TE/WR, A former top recruit at QB who is immensely athletic, and the #1 RB recruit in the nation failing to gain more than 3 yards a pop against a team that gave up 602 yards to Wyoming and 216 yards to Pur-f’ing-Due. Clark Griswold ain’t got nothing on me after watching this game.
At least he got some jelly.
UM gained a total of 175 yards on 12 drives, 141 of those yards on 2 of them. Last week I was aghast that UM gained –7 total yards outside of 3 longish drives against the #1 defense in America; against the 41st total defense they gained 40 yards total on the 10 other drives, with no drive longer than 16 yards. 0-9 Southern Miss had 6 drives that were longer and scored the same number of points as UM. I thought about breaking out this gif after the MSU game, but it didn’t feel right; after this game, nothing could be more appropriate about this team on offense.
Bes…And Another Thing
It’s not like these are acceptable growing pains for a unit on the rise. While the team is young overall, the offensive skill players are reasonably experienced save for the inside of the offensive line; this is a unit that isn’t necessarily destined to improve next year when those tackles are cashing NFL paychecks, Fitz breaks out in a cold sweat every time he walks through a doorway because he expects to be hit as soon as he opens the door, and everyone save Chesson and Funchess are getting their first “real” experience catching balls from a QB whose ribs are still recovering from a trip to the Lazarus Pit.
Green has a season long of 14 yards if you ignore his one run against CMU, and in this game averaged 1.4 ypc on 8 carries, 7 of which came on one run. He also seems unable to block anyone despite being somewhere in the ballpark of 240 pounds, or 2 more pounds than Joe Kerridge and 5 pounds more than 6’5” Devin Funchess. Gardner didn’t throw an interception for the 2nd time in 3 games, but that’s at least partially because he’s eaten 16 sacks over that same span, after only taking 10 total in the first 6 games of the year. His peripheral numbers weren’t horrible (7.3 ypa, 67%), but he rarely seemed comfortable looking downfield because, again, he didn’t want to be murdered by an unblocked Cornperson.
Funchess had a solid game and recorded the only TD, but you kind of expected more from him given the issues Nebraska has had stopping receivers in the past, and nobody other than Funchess or Gallon caught more than 2 passes. And about that running game…
Worst: Heart of Darkness
"... it was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice."
Another week, another negative running day. After recording a comprehensible –48 yards against MSU, UM dramatically improved on this performance by recording an incomprehensible –21 yards against the one of the worst rushing defenses in the AQ. Yes, including sacks in these totals obviously skew rushing performances, but the team only recorded a total of 46 positive yards against 67 lost yards over 36 carries, so that top number is more a slight fib than a lie.
I’ve been numb to the running game since they could barely crack 3 yards a carry against Minnesota, but it continues to boggle my mind that UM still relies on it so heavily, especially as an impetus for their offense. This is a bit of a crude measurement because a couple of first-down plays were clusterfricks that could have been a pass or a run but turned into immediate sacks/fumbled snaps, but I count 13 runs versus 8 passes on first down. Excising fumbled snaps and sacks from the computations, the average first-down run netted 1.7 ypc while passes hit home at 8.2 ypc. And yet, on 1st and long 2nd downs the call more than not was a poorly-blocked run into the heart of a Nebraska defense that hasn’t worn black shirts since they were chasing Colt McCoy around pre-Jerry World.
No drive was more an indictment of this insanity was the one after Nebraska’s fumble on a punt midway through the 4th quarter. UM was deep in Nebraska territory, tied but clearly struggling to move the ball save for that first 2nd-half drive, and a TD probably wins you the game. On the first Nebraska fumble late in the 3rd, UM threw the ball on first down deep to Gallon. It didn’t work, but its the type of playcall you need to make when you flip field position quickly.
On this second drive, though, the playcalls were two Manball Green runs for a total of –1 yards and a Gardner scramble leading to a Gibbons FG. Despite taking the lead, it felt like a loss by the offense and, frankly, I sped through the rest of the game to save me the agony as Nebraska marched down the field for the winning score. Like Taylor’s interception last week that led to a –21 yard drive, the offense never found its footing in a critical situation, and like last week it was mostly due to a reliance on a play style that was antithetical to the team’s limited strengths.
Best: Abdullah the Neighborhood Deli Guy
Heading into the game, I think most people expected Ameer Abdullah to have a big gain, and yet despite racking up 105 yards it felt like UM really held him in check. UM held the nation’s sixth-leading rusher to his lowest ypc of the year (3.9) and, his long run of 18 yards was one of those ping-pong-style runs that great backs get every once and a while. But overall, I thought the defense slowed him down quite well, and held the Nebraska offense to its lowest total and ypp outputs of the year, with only UCLA producing a similar effort. Nebraska only had 3 drives that were more than 30 yards, and while all three ended in scores, the other 8 averaged about 3 plays. Even with the caveats about the QBs, it was another solid performance by a unit that puts up good performances despite little organic pass rush (only 1 sack on a blitz by Gordon as well as two QB hits) and no real stars.
So I’ve waited until now before addressing this issue because I don’t want to be perceived as overly emotional. And yes, a bit of this is probably sleep deprivation. But here’s my best attempt to describe my feelings about this coaching staff.
And for the record, the old lady in this analogy is Greg Mattison, who has done a commendable job all things considered (injuries, experience, etc.).
As Brian noted during the podcast this week, Brady Hoke isn’t the micromanager you see by the likes of Saban, Meyer, Dantonio, or Rodriguez; he’s a CEO-style coach who hires his coaches and then expects them to perform their duties (Mack Brown seems to subscribe to the same mantra, for example). That doesn’t mean he is hands-off, only that he treats his staff as professionals and won’t meddle needlessly. At its best, coaches and players feel like they have real agency in their play, free from the blind spots and needless oversight from an overworked leader who can’t let go of the reins. At its worst, though, you have a leader who can’t stop the snowballing or, worst, tries to shake up the situation in an insane manner, such as RR trotting out the 3-3-5 against Purdue even though nobody on the staff had an idea of how to run it successfully.
Though I was a vocal critic of Brady Hoke when he first arrived on campus, he has exceeded my expectations when it comes to recruiting and shows a good sense of game theory and situational playcalling that you rarely saw with guys like Carr and Ferentz. And being a former defensive line coach, it is clear that he is more comfortable with that side of the team, and his defenses have been above-average despite facing tough odds in terms of talent and experience.
But when it comes to the offense, his lieutenants are treating every day like it’s Christmas at Sterling Cooper Draper Price, simple as that. The offensive line is a mess beyond simply experience, and the offense has regressed not just this year but over the past three seasons. Al Borges continues to play roshambo with the running game, and the passing game has become so neutered by poor blocking and (thanks to an inept rushing offense) poor down-and-distance. As I’ve said before, I’m sure Al Borges is a competent OC with the right talent, but right now he’s shown an inability to adapt to his team’s limitations as well as how other teams exploit those holes. And it goes deeper than simply wanting to install his offense; it seems fundamentally impossible for him to look beyond his playbook and do what is necessary to win. It’s not so much that he keeps throwing rock because it worked before; I’m fine with a coach staying true to this roots in a general sense. But this offensive playcalling seems to be actively ignoring the possibility of paper or scissors because they are self-identified “gimmicks” or for pussies. There are simple, within-the-offense playcalls that would help get this offense back on track and keep people alive, from more shotgun-based running to short option routes on 1st and 2nd down that could exploit matchups and, hopefully, loosen up the boxes UM is running into. But so far this year the offensive plan seems to be crappy pro-style until you are down and then semi-crappy spread until you get the lead or Devin Gardner is dead.
So if Hoke really is the CEO of this team, his one duty is to hold the coaches accountable. If I screw up at my job and my code is massively buggy, I’m fired. Sure, I might be a break in the beginning if the codebase is screwed up to begin with or there is some design overhaul, but at some point I’m expected to make the damn thing work. Right now, Al Borges is failing to get the damn thing to work, and unless he’s just been playing possum these past 3 years, I don’t see that changing either this year or next. I’m done calling for guys’ heads, but I’m also done believing that Al Borges will ever be more than a bad hire by Brady Hoke.
When it was announced before the game that Courtney Avery and Josh Furman would be the starting safeties, people justifiably wondered what was happening. There were apparently rumors that Thomas Gordon was injured and that the coaches wanted to try someone other than Wilson, but settling on Avery and Furman was questionable for a number of reasons. With Avery, it’s the fact that he is undersized for the position and has struggled at times in coverage. But at least he’s played the position before during the year and the coaches have some confidence in him. But Furman was another issue altogether, as he’s been consistently passed by other players throughout his career at UM despite being touted as a great athlete due to his rawness. Throw in Dymonte Thomas sneaking onto the field a couple times at the nickel seemingly in place of Lewis, and the secondary was markedly different than the one we’ve seen the past 8 games.
Problems with Furman started on that first drive when Nebraska converted on a long third down because the safety seemingly didn’t get down quick enough to stop the completion over the cornerback. And then he gave Nebraska a first down on a pretty egregious PI because, again, he hasn’t earned consistent playing time since he stepped onto campus and has struggled with nuances of the game. He seemed to be replaced by Wilson as the game proceeded, but the change seemed forced and merely for its sake, not because of some advantage it provided to the defense.
As for the offense, Derrick Green was definitely highlighted more despite the middling results noted earlier, and there were calls after the game for Shane Morris to replace Gardner because, I don’t know, people on the Internet like to be contrarian and ignore all reality. But it was strange to see these types of changes this late in the season with limited rationale beyond “well, it can’t hurt.”
I’ve never been able to fully embrace Chris Spielman due to his sometime-blatant homerism, but you can’t deny his knowledge of the game or the nuances he brings to the booth when compared to, I don’t know, anyone you’d find on the BTN. Throughout the game, he said Gardner (and the offense in general) needed to make adjustments, call audibles, etc. as the Nebraska defense beared down. Well, what can you do on 3rd and 19 and you have maybe 3 possible people to throw the ball to? True, the players are struggling at times to run the plays called, but when the offense has as much variety as a Tecmo Bowl playsheet and defenses are clearly able to make adjustments as the offense is lining up, I’m not sure how much you can expect in terms of counter-offenses.
I respect Spielman’s knowledge, but he kept talking about “execution” as if it is a tangible asset divorced from playcalling. If we’ve learned anything this year it is that this offense lacks the nuances to succeed unless the defense breaks down, everything goes right, or one of the still position players makes a superior effort. And even when the offense executes reasonably well, you still have a largely sub-par unit, unless the entire MSU game and much of the PSU/Nebraska/Akron/UConn games were all masterful games marred by players suffering from massive brain trauma.
Best: Don’t Hold Onto The Damn Ball!
Brian always jokes about Wolverines needing to hold onto the ball on punt returns, so it was great to see Norfleet recover a fumbled fair catch deep in Nebraska territory. As noted above, it didn’t lead to the winning score, but after weeks of near-recoveries it was nice to finally get a lucky bounce on those plays. As for punting, Matt Wile obliterated a punt for 69 yards to pin Nebraska deep into their own territory at the end of the 2nd quarter that ultimately set up UM in good field position…for a wasted drive with good field position. Again, baby steps. And Gibbons finished 2/2 while Wile missed on a long attempt, because while we can have nice things, we can’t have TOO nice of things.
Best: It’s Almost Over
4 more games until this season is mercifully over. NW should be a dogfight, and who knows what will happen against Iowa and OS…okay, we know what will probably happen against OSU. It rhymes with grape. But at least the basketball season has started, hockey is playing like it has a pulse, and the holidays are coming up and with them, copious alcohol consumption during most gamedays. I’m not throwing away the rest of the season because fans don’t do that, but unlike last year you can tell pretty quickly how bad this team is and, sadly, how little that will probably change in these last couple of games.
This isn’t for you, it’s for me.
The maxim you always hear surrounding hate is that it stems from broken love, that the same fire necessary to burn with unbridled animosity emanates from the same spot in one’s heart that you once left open and accepting. Great novels and a whole bunch of songs have been written about the debilitating power of love and respect as it turns to anger and betrayal, grinding salt and bile into the fresh fissures of the aorta. It is poetic and divine, blind to race or creed, man or woman; the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” of being.
And it’s all crap, at least when you apply it to sport.*
The reason most fans “hate” other teams is because they “hate” losing to people they know, whether personally or as archetypes. I have never loved or particularly cared for most of UM’s rivals despite the fact I actually attended MSU for law school. When some school like Wisconsin or Illinois talks up a budding rivalry and bad blood with the Wolverines, I could not care less because it’s all relative and irrelevant at the same time. People don’t like losing, and if you keep losing to a team a bunch of times you come to hate that feeling. Replace that team with another and the hatred remains the same even though the target has changed.
UM fans hate to lose to Notre Dame because they represent the same blue-blooded traditions and faded glory, the same time-honored notions of scholar-athletes battling it out for school and pride and definitely not for financial gain. Perhaps on some level, it is also because the academic standings of those schools attract individuals cognizant of somewhat-arbitrary scholastic rankings and the “prestige” that can be derived from them. And, well, they’ve been around so long that at some point, you just get sick of seeing them year after year.
With Ohio State and Michigan State, the distaste comes from all of the regional, historical, and national implications found to varying degrees with the Fighting Irish, but also in part because of the cultural differences found at those schools. Whole stadiums could be filled every Saturday by the strawmen we create about our opponents; as fans it is the most natural way to look at the opposition, incredibly shallow in depth but immensely wide in breadth. With UM, the arrogance is the calling card; Buckeyes and Spartans call out UM fans for their “wine and cheese”, their haughty sense of superiority derived from endowments and famous alumni and the “Michigan Man” ideology that supposedly runs through the blood of every Wolverine. They point out the sanctimony in questioning the intelligence and morality of players on the other teams despite the fact that UM was likely recruiting them at some point, and wonder how it is possible to whitewash away all those sins as soon as a player steps foot in Schembechler Hall. And they point out that for all the stirs and echoes of past wins, it hasn’t been pretty recently.
OSU feels like the jock who broke the rules and got away with it largely unscathed, the guy who sweeps the leg even though he probably doesn’t need to. Ohio State has the tradition and resources to stand amongst the giants in the sport, and yet they keep bringing in liars, cheaters, and hypocrites who tweak the rules just enough while winning in every way possible. And perhaps most aggravating for UM, OSU appears to just be “better” than the Wolverines right now, and probably have been for nearly a decade. As UM has undergone a series of painful, largely self-inflicted transitions, OSU just continues on with few hiccups despite far more serious upheaval.
But at least with OSU, it feels like they’ve “earned” that right to be better than UM, given their prior accomplishments and their consistency. In this tortured analogy, they are the dickish prep kid with the nice car who gets the girl; MSU was Ducky. It’s a program with a losing bowl record, virtually no national profile, and a fanbase characterized as a mix of Juggalos and Ax body spray aficionados. It is the very model of a mediocre program, with the status quo being that MSU cared way more about beating UM because they almost never did, and that all of the “little brother” comments were appropriate-if-sophomoric shots at a program and school that was always tugging on the coattails of UM, never able to keep pace. It almost didn’t matter if you hailed from Novi or New York City, Charlevoix or Chicago; if you were a UM student you saw MSU as the collection of brosephs and meatheads (and whatever the female equivalents are) that you tried to escape while in high school. You beat them in the classroom, in the boardroom, and on the football field, and with such regularity it was hard to drum up anything stronger than a slight snicker and faux outrage whenever asked about them.
But that’s changed recently, at least on the football field. While I foresee this being a bit of an apogee for MSU given its so-so recruiting and significant turnover after this season, the fact remains that MSU has dominated this series the past 6 games (going 5-1 and losing that one game on a last-second FG). It is MSU with the consistent identity, the staunch defense and opportunistic offense, the team that gets most of the breaks and tends to win going away. It is the UM fans that yearn for those victories, who treat a game that used to be a semi-emotional speedbump into a major touchstone and measuring stick for the program. And perhaps most surprisingly, the hatred that was once seemingly directed unilaterally now flows both ways, more full with vinegar and vitriol than most can remember. It’s a bit sad in a way that the gap has closed this much between the two schools on the field, but at least now the animosity feels earned.
* I’m sure there are soccer fans who’d argue about national and club rivalries that are born from turncoats, geographic proximity, and broken dreams, and hell Pakistan and India play cricket with missiles pointed at each other. But I’d argue that animosity exists outside of sport; the field or pitch merely provides a sanctioned analog.
Worst: You know, they cancelled the O.C. late as well
This point isn’t going to be sugar-coated: I’m done with this offensive staff. I’m sure the UFR will point out areas where the right playcalls were made but failed because of execution issues (I remember at least two passes in the 3rd quarter where Gardner missed Funchess wide-open, even though at least once it was because he was under heavy pressure). But at some time, the writing is on the wall even if it isn’t totally that Borges’s fault. It has been nearly three years and the team is as schizophrenic and discordinate as ever on the offensive end, and I’m tired of the “wait until next year” refrains that grew stale under Rodriguez. And at least with Rodriguez, you had a high-octane offense with a clear identity that has worked at every other stop.
True, Borges got a bad hand when he showed up at UM, inheriting a playmaker and not a QB with Denard, a guy who couldn’t run his offense and who had few targets to throw at period. He rode it out as best as possible, but it was a bad fit masked by the early success the team had in spite of it; that 11-2 season with memorable wins over ND and OSU gave people the false hope that the talent and coaches could make it work despite the mismatch. Last year happened and everyone realized Borges and Robinson weren’t a good fit, but the expectation was that Gardner would be a better match at least in the short-term. The offensive line, though, has betrayed them the past two years, and the progression and maturation people expected has been, at best, minimal across the board.
Given the right talent, I’m sure Borges could field a productive offense, but that looks to be 2-3 years in the future. In the meantime, this team loses its best WR as well as its best slot threat, its two best linemen, and its only seemingly competent RB. There are some bright spots, but there doesn’t seem to be anything approximating a rainbow on the horizon. What killed RR was his historically poor defenses; outside of the IU and ND games, this offense has been historically bad, and something needs to be done beyond max protect and stacked lines against Minnesota. This is a bit morbid, but at some point you need to Marissa the situation before everyone gets hurt.
Al Borges isn’t a visionary, and there a dozens of coordinators out there who could score 60+ points against IU and, I hope, more than 28 against Akron and 24 against UConn with far less hassle and a bit more coherence. With weeks to prepare, he called a listless game that featured slow-developing running plays, long passes despite heavy pressure, and a continued belief that he’ll make this work if he just keeps slamming his head against the wall. Well, that wall isn’t going anywhere, and all we have is a headache.
I understand that loyalty in a program is hard to break, but this is also a competitive system in which under-performance can’t be allowed to remain unaddressed. Players have been moved in and out of the starting lineup because they haven’t performed “up to the position” while in uniform; it’s time for the guys making those decisions to be held to the same standard.
Worst: Downs and Distances
Here are some downs and distances from this game:
|3rd and 20|
|4th and 21|
|3rd and 18|
|4th and 24|
|2nd and 30|
|3rd and 29|
|4th and 48|
|3rd and 24|
They had three drives of more than 50 yards, two of which ended in FGs and the third in Gardner’s interception. For every other drive combined, UM ended with –7(!!!) yards of total offense. That’s right; with two weeks of preparation and countless promises to adapt, UM produced the worst offensive performance any of us will probably ever see out of the Wolverines. They punted or turned the ball over on downs with 4 or fewer plays 8 times this game. After Raymon Taylor’s interception of Cook late in the 3rd quarter, UM’s subsequent drive resulted in –21 yards of offense and, according to ESPN’s official boxscore, was the end of the game despite there being a whole quarter to go. And honestly, I don’t think that was a misprint.
That isn't an implosion; that's f'ing Katamari on a football field. And we've seen enough of that particular output the past couple of years for a lifetime.
Best: I still have no idea about this defense
I know the numbers weren’t pretty in the end, but MSU gained 153 of their 394 total yards of offense on those two final drives when the game was effectively over. They forced a punt or turnover on 6 other drives, and were victimized a bit by some fluky plays that could have ended drives. It was a competent defensive performance and, if the offense had been able to do virtually anything, probably would have been enough to win the game.
Mattison remains an enigma, and like Al Borges is working with a sub-optimal collection of players. Still, his insistence on 3-man rushes was alternately appropriate and maddening; there were a half-dozen instances where MSU WRs were wide open despite dedicating 8 players to defend against the pass. At the same time, it’s a unit that recorded 1 sack all game, and it came from a corner blitz where Ross and Avery met at the QB. Frank Clark played pretty well in run defense, recording 2.5 TFLs among his 9 tackles, but only hit the QB once and was generally unable to generate much in the way of sustained pressure. Black and Washington were quiet, and given Black’s abilities rushing the passer I would have liked to see him get a chance despite his obvious limitations against the run. Jake Ryan is working his way back in, but this remains a unit of B+ players, and that doesn’t hold up throughout the game.
Langford ended the day with 120 yards but 62 of those came on the last drive. I thought the linebackers played reasonably well, though again it was an ugly game where guys were getting open but Cook just missed them sometimes, while at other times he was able to loft a ball over 4 guys into the only open spot on the field.
Taylor had the lone interception on a nice read but was also the leading tackler with 12, which is okay if you are playing Indiana but not so good when Connor Cook is barely completing 50% of his passes. The rest of the secondary was alternately in great coverage and allowing Bennie Fowler to beat them down the field only to be overthrown because, again, Connor Cook. While some people will cry out for his removal as well, I’m willing to give him a bit more rope simply because I’ve seen strides made from this unit and, outside of IU, they have been above-average all year. Furthermore, Mattison has a track record far more accomplished than others on this staff, and given the recruits coming in it is hard to argue that the defense will not improve as the younger players mature.
I hated it when Mike Hart brought up familiar relations between the two schools, and since then it has only gotten more juvenile and asinine. I get poking fun at a rival, but one would hope that these two fanbases could have created something more creative, more thoughtful and meaningful than insults based on who got out of their metaphorical mother’s uterus first. It all came to a crescendo toward the end of Saturday’s game, when the Spartan faithful began chanting “little sister” in a tone that can best be described a mix between Nelson Muntz and Law & Order: SVU. In one sense it’s dumb to argue that fans have gone too far because of some chanting considering you could go about a billion times farther, but this also feels like a cycle that needs to be broken and not perpetuated by guys who weren’t even in HS when it started. People complain about the ND rivalry taking a hiatus and how that might diminish hostilities needlessly; I’d be fine if UM and MSU skipped a year or two so that both fandoms could look in the mirror and figure out something, anything better than these infantile sayings.
Best: MSU’s Defense is REALLY Good
I was a non-believer of sorts because I thought MSU hadn’t really played a good offense save ND and IU, but this is a terrifyingly-good defense that should pose major issues for OSU in the conference title game. Though it lacks elite athleticism, it plays with the type of precision and consistency you expect from a well-coached squad, and outside of a couple of plays UM could do absolutely nothing against it. It will look demonstrably different next year when many of its best players graduate and (I suspect) Narduzzi moves on, but it should remain a solid unit going forward as long as Dantonio is at the helm. That said…
Worst: Penalties were turned off, apparently
My gawd are those corners reliant on the referees not throwing flags. I get there is some physicality expected on passing routes, but there was not a single pass interference call (sorry Brian, you were off by 1) made despite Funchess and Gallon carrying corners down the field like they were f’ing Ents. I’m not saying the game would have been totally different with a couple of flags, but ND’s 4 PIs against MSU were a major reason they were able to move the ball semi-successfully down the field. Even my wife, who is 19-and-a-half months pregnant (perhaps slight exaggeration) thought it was pretty egregious, and she has a parasite inside her trying to steal all of her iron.
Worst: Poor Damn Devin and Fitz – The Duet
Gardner had a decent enough game when he wasn’t getting murdered by MSU’s pass rush, which recorded 7 sacks and 7 more hits. He completed about 52% of his passes for 210 yards, averaging about 7.8 ypa and having a couple of drops by his receivers halting drives. His rushing total was marred by losing 46 yards on sacks and that horrible snap, and the hits ultimately led to his removal with (one hopes) a relatively minor injury. Seeing him be lifted off the field, mud caked on his jersey while clearly wincing in pain, and then running another play was a bit heartbreaking, even though he nearly blew a third-down conversion by pulling up early. It wasn’t heroic, but anyone who questions whether or not this kid is trying his best out there needs to step away from the keyboard.
As for Fitz, what can you say? MSU has the best rushing defense in the country by a mile, and they showed it again this game. He only ran the ball 8 times, but limited the TFLs to one and generally took what the defense gave him. In a different game perhaps he could have produced better results, but I kind of doubt it. His senior year will likely be remembered for returning from a gruesome injury to play behind a young, under-performing line and getting beaten up in the process. As noted, I could have done without the public comments, but he’s clearly soldiering on and at this point, I don’t think you can expect much else from him.
Worst: What about Hoke?
I’ll keep this brief because this is totally speculative: he’s earned himself some leeway with the recruiting and the early wins, but there needs to be some changes made to this program going into next year. As noted earlier, I think the offensive system needs to be overhauled with a new coordinator, and that includes hiring a dedicated QB coach and not being so tied to a single vision despite mounting evidence it isn’t going to happen with the players available. The defense is a work in progress but one that feels like it has potential given continued recruiting and player maturation. Mattison is not above reproach, but enough smart people swear by him that there has to be something there. And outside of Ohio, this team still feels like the favorite against Iowa, NW, and Nebraska, and that’s 9 wins with a possible bowl win. Let’s not throw a parade or anything, but given how this season has unfolded it isn’t horrible. Plus, given what happened with RR, this program needs some stability even if it is somewhat mediocre.
Best: The Next Two Weeks
Looking at the schedule, what once looked like a hellish November now seems positively bearable. Nebraska can’t stop anyone, and NW can’t stop the saddest song from playing in an infinite loop. Neither is a gimme win, but I’d be a bit disappointed with even a split. Much will rely on Gardner being healthy and the offense continuing its Jekyll and Hyde home/road split, but luckily UM won’t have to play a team like MSU again this year, and just typing that makes me a little sadder. Ah well, I’ve gone this far.
Unlike last week, this is pretty positive. It was actually quite a bit harder to write, though, which makes me think that I’m more engaged when I’m in a bad mood. Let’s hope I’m not handed another opportunity to test that theory this season.
I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It's so fuckin' heroic. – George Carlin
Last week against PSU, the UM defense put forth an “heroic” effort to hold the Nittany Lions to 43 points over 4 OTs. It was the type of game where the obvious structural fissures and blatant player deficiencies you usually expect after giving up 43 points simply did not exist; you could pick at the seams but the whole tapestry did not unravel spectacularly.
Against Indiana, UM gave up 47 points in regulation, allowing 572 yards in total offense and 8 scoring drives that averaged 53 yards on only 5 plays per. On paper, it looked like most of the nightmare games UM had defensively under RR or any time they played a spread team like Oregon or Jarious Jackson-led Notre Dame under Carr. Just one of those games where the defense couldn’t get off the field to save its life, and the opposition was, at best, slightly inconvenienced on its way to the endzone.
But a funny thing happened on the way to eradication: the defense played well enough to win. In no way should that be construed as “great” or even “good” because, well, this is still a results-based sport and for all of the advanced metrics and acronyms, 7.5 yard per play (and closer to 8 if you factor out that last desperation drive) allowed isn’t going to cut it.
That said, this wasn’t a game where UM was outclassed or, really, even out-schemed. True, there were a couple of busted plays caused by the Hoosiers’ maddening tempo, including a 59-yarder to Latimer for the game’s first score as well as as couple of long completions in the 3rd quarter when Roberson found Stoner for a 42-yarder and Wynn Worst Waldo’ing for a TD. But in addition to the two interceptions recorded by the defense, there were probably 3-4 others that were close to being turnovers, including the 67 yarder by Hughes and a sequence in the 2nd quarter where Taylor (?) had a near-pick on Roberson that was followed by a crazy 33-yard TD to Wynn to pull IU within 7. As with last week’s post-Crisis final drive, those plays sometimes happen against you without rhyme or reason.
And after surrendering 23 points to IU in the 3rd quarter, the defense clamped down in the 4th, allowing only 7 points and forcing two turnovers (including a quick one after the Gardner fumble) as well as a game-ending sack by Frank Clark. For 3/4 of the game, the defense held IU to about a TD a quarter; a couple of breakdowns and luck made a 16-point win look closer than it was. And yes, saying a “couple of breakdowns” is like saying The Room had a “couple of issues” with editing and plot. Given all that, while I wouldn’t frame this game as a particularly heroic one by Mattison’s crew, it was at least “recklessly effective".
Best: The Only Defense is a Good Offense
I’ll get into my feelings about the offense later on (spoiler alert: MSU scored 42 points against IU in a single game!) but it must be said that the offense performed exactly the role it needed to in this game. IU’s offense is incredibly fast-paced and up-tempo; to steal a line from official MSU sponsor TapOut, IU tries to overwhelm the opposition with punches in bunches. Kevin Wilson, in-between absolutely eradicating Big Red gum and fuming during tense interviews with former UM offensive linemen, predicates a fast-strike offense that never wins the TOP battle because it doesn’t need to.
Early on, though, it seemed like the defense had IU basically figured out; UM forced a punt on 4 of the first 5 drives, including a couple of 3-and-outs. Of course, they did get tempo’d on a 4 play, 72 yard TD drive, but overall it seemed like IU’s offense was getting stymied by UM’s tight coverage and solid line play. At the same time, UM’s offense kept chugging along, scoring 4 TDs on their first 6 possessions and having a FG blocked because science.
But starting midway through the 2nd quarter all the way to the start of the 4th, IU started rolling with Tre Roberson and the defense had no real answer. All of a sudden, the defense couldn’t get off the field without giving up points, it seemed like IU had a 14 guys on every play, and my leftover Pad Thai tasted not like a bastardized version of a Bangkok dish but merely despair. UM’s only hope was to weather the storm by matching IU’s scoring barrage, one nutso drive at a time.
And that’s exactly what they did, with a couple of bumps along the way. Both fumbles were quickly rectified by Thomas Gordon INTs that UM was able to capitalize on, and the only other non-score on those 9 second-half possessions was a quick 3-and-out. There was no “field position battle” or alternative strategy by either offense; the goal was to score a touchdown on every drive, and while IU certainly was the faster squad out there, UM just kept plugging along at an efficient pace until IU’s mistakes caught up with them. The announcers characterized it as two boxers throwing haymakers; I thought it more like one of those 40-yard dash videos where a couple of players were superimposed on top of each other to distinguish individual progress during the sprint.
Both offenses were tenuously in competition with each other, but it felt more like a race to 60 points than anything resembling a pitched back-and-forth confrontation. It was admittedly somewhat surreal to watch, though in the joyous sense of seeing your team decimate an overmatched opponent and in the sense of, you know, the rest of the season.
Worst: The Shuffle
A football team is an ever-changing and evolving creature; due to injuries, performance, or purely feel, changes need to be made throughout the year to get as close to perfection as possible. With UM, the most significant and consistent changes have been made to the offensive line, which if last week’s special 27 for 27 didn’t drive the point home, is a bit in shambles. While the tackles are both experienced and will be playing in the NFL next year, the rest of the line is ludicrously young and/or inexperienced while also experiencing nearly week-by-week upheaval between the guards and center. Both Joe Burzynski and Erik Magnuson received their first starts of the year, replacing recent first-time starters Chris Bryant and Kyle Kallis, and once Burzynski went out due to injury Kyle Bosch stepped in as a true freshman.
While I do not doubt for a moment that these changes are due to both real and perceived lack of performance, one has to wonder if all of these changes are at least partially responsible for those deficiencies. The one thing you hear most often about an offensive line is that it benefits immensely from familiarity and maturation as a unit, that the more often these same 5 guys line up the better they’ll be as they learn the line calls, identify blocking assignments, and generally get a feel for how each other plays. But when you are replacing 3/5 of your line every couple of weeks with progressively less experienced players, while also installing a bunch of wonky-ish formations, you really shouldn’t be surprised if the same problems and holes keep reappearing. For example, on Fitz’s first TD on 4th and 1, the inside of the line was absolutely crushed; only be bouncing outside did Fitz find the endzone. Now, if that sounds familiar to you, welcome to the 2013-2014 Michigan Wolverines. Your pitchfork and Thundershirt is in the mail.
I know the stats say the line did a decent job (4.6 ypc on 54 carries) run-blocking and only gave up 2 sacks, but it again looked like a line in transition, which is not a positive sign 2/3 of the way into the season.
Best: Secret Santa
I’m not sure what the Secret Santa policy is on the team, but if I’m Jeremy Gallon I would give Devin Funchess all of the gift baskets given how his move to WR has opened up the field for Rocket Boots. While Funchess pulled in the lion’s share of the catches against Minny, Gallon has 21 catches for 464 yards and 3 TDs in the past two games and looks to be back to his All B1G-caliber mark most expected after the ND game.
Similarly, Devin Gardner has transformed from a terrifying pick-six machine into what most people expected when the year began: a dynamic playmaker who will make some bad throws but who can also pick you apart on the ground or in the air when the weapons around him are thoroughly deployed. Obviously the ultimate goal would be for Funchess to follow the Tyler Eifert model of terrifying TE/WR who can actually block on running plays, but so far his move to WR has not only led to great numbers for him (23.1 ypc and 3 TDs in the past 3 games, which would rank him #5 nationally if he kept it up for the year) but also a demonstrative improvement for the other players in the passing game.
Worst: Knowing is Half the Battle, Unless Said Battle is Against Indiana’s Defense
Jeremy Gallon started off UM’s second drive with a simple WR screen that he turned into a 70 yard completion. It was a great playcall at the time because the Indiana DBs had shifted their coverage distance from “city-sized” cushion to a “state-sized” one, and Gallon is hard enough to tackle when you are on top of him that giving him any space to move was an invitation for awesomeness. So a little later on, Devin Gardner took the snap, faked what I presume was a bubble screen, and handed off to Green for a nice gain. One can only presume at that moment, Heiko did something like this:
Certainly the liveblog exploded with a mixture of jubilation and confusion; happy that the playbook was opening up a bit but also wondering if either Al Borges was purposely trolling the fanbase or if he was seriously considering using gimmicky ideas like “misdirection” and “adapting to the defense.”
Unfortunately, I’ve seen this Al Borges before; it isn’t Good Borges or Bad Borges, but instead Irrelevant Borges because his playcalling was never tested by a competent defensive unit. Call me a Borges Denier, but I don’t even know if he was calling plays this week; a 14-year-old fan could have snuck into the booth and nobody thought to check.
IU couldn’t really stop the run, even when the offensive line brought out five Vuvuzelas and announced where they were going. Penetration and swarming sometimes led to stops, but even this offensive line was able to impose its will. Heck, the one TO by Fitz was due to Gardner trying a toss play that probably would have worked HAD THEY EVER PRACTICED IT. Even with this mishap, Fitz had his beast game of the year by a country mile, scoring 4 times while averaging 4.7 yards on 32 carries and a long of 27. And when a wide receiver sets a conference record while a QB sets both passing and total yardage records at the same school where Denard Robinson played Notre Dame and Illinois numerous times, you know the secondary was just escorting the ball to the receivers.
A win is a win, though, and 751 yards in total offense (on only 83 plays!) is 128 more yards given up against than any other competitor this season (Mizzou put up 623). Al Borges called a fine game and the offense executed immensely well. But the free-wheeling, spread-ish offense we saw by Borges isn’t going to stick around against the rest the conference slate, just like it didn’t against OSU last year, Iowa in 2011, or PSU this year. If anything, this game will simply be viewed as reinforcing the tendencies we’ve seen already, except that instead of averaging under a yard per carry IU’s derpitude resulted in a record-setting game. It remains an offense that screams ‘zig’ (Devin-centric attack with some up-tempo thrown in) while Borges remains determined to zag. It worked this week, but that’s the thing about Indiana: you only get to play them once.
Worst: Poor Secondary or
Best: Limited YACs?
If you haven’t gathered yet, I’m relatively positive about the defense this week, at least compared to my very lukewarm feelings about the offense. That doesn’t mean it was a great day by the unit, especially the secondary. As noted earlier, a couple of those long completions were due to dumb luck or great throws (Jourdan Lewis in particular was victimized by a great throw along the sideline), but IU clearly identified Raymon Taylor as a weak spot and attacked him mercilessly early on. He led the team with 4 pass breakups but also was in on 9 tackles, including 7 solo. By comparison, Countess was only responsible for 1 PBU and 3 tackles, and outside of a couple of plays seemed to keep pace. When one of your corners is seeing that much action, its usually not because he’s just flying all over the field, or at least not purposely doing so within the flow of the defense.
A number of IU’s long gains were because the secondary couldn’t get into position properly, either failing to align in the right coverage or simply trailing plays that started up before they were set. Outside of more preparation against this type of offense or “being better” I’m not sure how the unit can really improve on its performance, at least as currently constructed. Thomas Gordon’s two INTs definitely alleviate the sting a bit, though I’m guessing at least a couple of the long TDs were because either Gordon or Wilson failed to shift over to help out the DBs.
That said, there were relatively few blown plays resulting from missed tackles. The 67-yarder was somewhat due to a failure to tackle after the contested reception, and I’m sure I’m missing another couple plays, but usually a defender was there when the pass was completed to limit the damage. The longest run by a back all day (and apparently all year) was 20 yards, which is totally acceptable given the circumstances.
Best: I Must Be Drunk
This is apparently where I absolutely lose my mind and talk up the defense some more. Sure it was a cheap one at the end of the game, but Frank Clark had another sack and has 4.5 in 4 games. Given the speed by which IU gets the ball out, the two sacks recorded by the team are understandable. The line’s continued improvement along with Ryan’s return gives me hope that there might be some disruption forthcoming. And the linebackers, in particular Bolden, played reasonably well, though I’d trust Brian’s detailed analysis far more than my naked-eye observations. IU had some success running the ball, especially once Roberson took over, but it always felt limited, as if the defense was giving up 4-5 yards on the ground to protect against the pass. Probably something related to bending vs. breaking.
I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, and if you haven’t read it yet I won’t spoil it except to say it is absolutely like every other book he’s ever written. It’s the type of book wherein you’ll be annoyed that he is playing a little fast and loose with statistics, the underlying results of papers, and how a quasi-fictional narrative can be spun in a pop-sci book, but also glean enough interesting anecdotes and believable results that you’ll feel slightly smarter at your next soiree .
Personally, I enjoy the books but take them with a hefty grain of salt; I definitely wouldn’t use them as citations but I have looked into some of the topics more deeply after reading his takes. And one of the stronger takeaways from this book is that strengths and weaknesses are often subjective, based purely on the perceptions and biases of each party involved.
The titular tale of David and Goliath is turned on its head, as Gladwell discusses the fact that powerful but immobile Goliath (who likely was suffering from the same condition that afflicted people like Gheorghe Muresan and Andre the Giant) was no match for the fleet-footed David because the battlefield favored the swift artillery, only nobody had considered disrupting the paradigm until the stone fell the giant. He then pointed to numerous other examples in which the “underdog” military held its ground against a superior force by fighting in an atypical style, and only when these smaller forces adopted more “classical” styles that favored numerical advantage over other factors did they start to lose. In effect, he argues, the status quo works best when everyone agrees to abide by its terms; deviate even a bit and the inefficiencies are there for the taking.
Watching IU on offense, I saw how their up-tempo offense could flummox defenses for games; when the offense is already lined up mere seconds after the ball is placed, the defense has a very small window in which to react and respond. On offense, you only need that one point of failure, that one missed assignment or sloppy tackle, to score. Your line doesn’t have to be big and powerful, and your skill players can be pretty average, because you are maximizing the issues created by slow-reacting defenders getting into position.
But on defense, everyone really does need to be on the same page, or at least a reasonable facsimile. That’s why you typically see the most successful defenses against spread attacks be veteran-laden; you need kids who can react to the formations with minimal communication from the coaches. RR’s offenses ran into problems when the PSU’s, MSU’s, and OSU’s of the world could keep pace. And that points to the reality that defenses are far more reliant on overall talent than offense; you can disguise coverages and blitz from as many angles as you want, but you need guys who JUST MAKE PLAYS to keep you in the game. IU doesn’t have that, and that’s how a pretty average offense was able to drop 63 points on them. I shudder to think how IU would handle a team like themselves, but more talented; OkSt. or TT would run them off the field by halftime, and I don’t even think the NCAA would let them match up against Oregon. It’s why when the clearly-aroused Glen Mason spoke of IU’s youth on defense and the expected improvement it would see as it matured, I had to scoff a bit. For all of Indiana’s polish on offense, that defense hasn’t been “good” in decades, and no amount of “coaching them up” and father time will matter if the players just aren’t that talented.
I guess my point is that while I’m never going to be a big fan of Al Borges or the offensive philosophy of this team, I care far more about how this team’s defense evolves and grows over the next couple of years. It is undoubtedly cliche, but you have to be able to stop the other guy at least a couple of times in order to win, and a dominant defense with a competent-if-infuriating offense feels like a more efficient outfit than a hack-and-slash offense with a sieve in the front 7. Obviously one can dream of both, but the fact we have yet to really see a team pull it off makes me think it is harder than one thinks. Given the coaching staff and the philosophy they have installed, I’m bracing myself to see the status quo shaken up once or twice a season but only as a tease.
Bestest: Bouncing Baby Programming Note
This is probably more personal than many of you care to know, but BronxBlueWife and I are expecting our first mini Wolverine in the next week or so. Because I am a shot-caller, I’m hoping the baby arrives during the bye week and I’m at least semi-capable of scribbling down thoughts thru the end of the season. But if not, this might become a less-frequent weekly, at least until the sleep deprivation shifts from a sharp pain to a dull, perpetual one.