The nutty Michigan coverage isn't so much about Harbaugh as it is a signal to the Big Ten that Fox wants to party.
So here we go again, the 2015 Michigan football season is nearly upon us, and I am trotting out the same column format in the hope that denizens of this blog will want to read 10,000 word recaps of games laced with references to 90’s cartoons, professional wrestling, and random animated gifs.
If you want to read last year’s pre-season column, and boy you should if you want to have one of those cry-laughs that are all the rage, check it out. Spoiler alert – I spend a LOT of time being semi-optimistic about Brady Hoke and actually defend Dave Brandon.
Best(?): New Beginnings
When Michigan takes the field against Utah on September 3rd, Jim Harbaugh will be the third different head coach to lead the charge for the Wolverines in the past 8 seasons. The previous three coaching changes at Michigan spanned a combined 39 largely drama-free seasons.*
But no, really, this time it feels right. With Rich Rodriguez, you had an outsider, an innovative offensive coach trying to change the culture of a program that had always been wary of these “gimmicky offenses” (it was like the town elders describing dancing in Footloose whenever Joe Tiller’s Purdue Boilermakers came to town), his tenure beginning on rocky footing and never recovering after a disastrous first season, as the losses mounted and the media-stoked torches and pitchforks came out. People forget, especially the younger fans, just how strange it was in 2008 to see Michigan be decidedly below-average, even awful. Sure, Michigan had suffered through some bumpy seasons, a 4- or 5-loss season here or there, but it hadn’t posted a losing season since 1967. For perspective, the people alive today who even faintly remember that season are nearing retirement age. But as soon as Carr walked off the field with his Capital One Bowl, I don’t know, commemorative Alec Baldwin coffee mug, whatever lingering braces to the gates holding back football’s Father Time gave way, and Michigan finally suffered through a perhaps long-overdue run of on-the-field disappointment and off-the-field tumultuousness. If you want the gory details, you can delve deep into the archives of this site or pick up a book.
When I say Michigan was “due” a downturn, it doesn’t mean I wanted that to be the case; obviously as a fan, I expect the teams I root for to win every game at all times, rationality be damned. But the signs had been there for some time that UM was falling behind the rest of college football even if the wins were still somewhat-consistent. It wasn’t just App St. and Oregon blitzing them in 2007; OSU had taken 6 of the last 7 meetings between the teams, they had lost 4 straight bowl games, and seemed unwilling to adopt more explosive offensive systems despite having top-notch NFL talent on that side of the ball for the bulk of Carr’s tenure. The defenses never handled mobile QBs particularly well, and as teams moved toward more wide-open, spread-infused offensive systems it never felt like UM learned to compensate.
As a testament to Carr and his recruiting, this reticence didn’t always matter; despite what is said about the utilization of mobile QBs to level out talent discrepancies by forcing defenders to account for all 11 players on the field, you can win a whole lotta games by being way more talented than those other offenses, scheme be damned. That’s why Indiana and Antwaan Randle El, who was a great college QB, never won more than 5 games while he was there and, save for barely-ranked Minnesota and MSU, never collected any prominent scalps. And so, Michigan could afford to stay largely pat as long as the talent keep flowing into Ann Arbor consistently, which is why those last couple of Carr years, with the (comparatively) mediocre classes coming to the head, probably shouldn’t have seemed so strange. They were top-heavy teams with shallow two-deeps that led to Johnny Sears being entrusted as a #1 cornerback for about 1/2 of a game before everyone looked at the scoreboard. Decided talent advantages and consistent coaching netted you 6-9 wins a year, then good fortune and fate decided the rest; it’s why UM seemed to ping-pong between 8 and 11 wins depending on the strength of its upperclassmen. Some years they looked like fringe national contenders; others they couldn’t get out of their own way.
But I digress; RR didn’t work out in large part because his defenses were historically terrible, he suffered through a miserable string of bad luck (TO margin, injuries, media), had some issues recruiting and retaining players, and just never connected with a large component of the UM fanbase. Plus, when Bill Martin was succeeded by noted pizza delivery man Dave Brandon and UM slogged through an uninspiring 3rd season and a shellacking at the hands of Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, the writing was on the wall.
I’m REALLY not going to relive the coaching search following RR’s departure, but again, why did we think Dave Brandon was any good at his job? Because he acted like a smug asshole when responding to the Free Press and Stretchgate? By displaying the same temperament as a 12-year-old Vlogger , Vine-Star, Snap-chattress, or whatever Vanity Fair keeps telling me is the new wave in “cross-platform media stars”?
So in came Brady Hoke, a former UM defensive line coach who grew up under Lloyd Carr and represented the sole viable branch of his coaching tree. He had two semi-successful stints at other programs, winning 12 games in his last year at Ball St. and another 9 at San Diego St. two years later. He preached defense and “toughness” above everything else, seemed to embody the derisive term “manball” while still fielding semi-explosive pro-style offenses, and, well, said this at his first press conference.
That sound you heard was a decent number of middle-aged UM fans letting loose a sigh of relief that FINALLY UM had a coach who understood why winning was important and how special a program it was, feelings that were completely different than at any other program in the country. At Michigan you were expected to win with class and dignity, not like UM’s rivals who were, I guess, known to either win while pillaging college towns in the Midwest or losing while flinging their poop at the TV cameras?
I honestly don’t know anymore, but at the time it was super-important that Michigan be run by a “Michigan Man”, a phrase that I’m sure my 21-month-old daughter will start repeating ad nauseam once she realizes repeating the word “f*ck” is pretty played out.
Anyway, feel free to, again, read this blog’s archives or pick up another book if you want the gory details of the Hoke/Brandon era. It started off fantastic, with UM winning 11 games and the Sugar Bowl, besting ND and OSU in exciting contests, and generally looking like a competent program again. And yeah, it felt like a bit of an aberration even while it was happening, with a fantastic turnover margin, unsustainable 4th-down stoppage rate, and a healthy dose of luck sprinkled in.
Brady Hoke, though, recruited like a madman, and even when the wheels started to come off as remnants of RR’s offensive playmakers weren’t replaced and UM burned through offensive coordinators with little progress, it still felt like UM could just talent their way through the potholes of the “bare cupboards” left behind by the previous regime.
But if anything, every successive season under Hoke showed just how far behind Michigan had fallen compared to both its rivals (MSU, OSU, even ND) and college football in general. The team wasn’t showing progress, and that sense of malaise, of indifference by the fans, went from simmering to scalding, driving down attendance and further eroding an already-fragile relationships between those in the stands and the athletic department. It all came to a head against Minnesota, when Shane Morris was out on his feet and a bunch of grown-ass men were either too scared, too dumb, or too weak to protect him. And this is coming from a guy who initially defended Hoke and his handling of the situation. I still believe that Hoke honestly felt that Morris hadn’t suffered a concussion, and there appeared to be significant amount of confusion on the sidelines at the time, but regardless it was yet another example of the terrible leadership you saw under Hoke, wrapped up in lame explanations and an inability to adequately respond to complex issues. Brandon was out shortly thereafter, and Hoke followed after the season, but both of their fates were sealed long before.
So in came Jim Hackett, who has (thus far) turned out to be everything Brandon wasn’t as an AD – thoughtful, humble, proactive, and aware that the fans cared more about UM fielding a competent team they could be proud of than whether or not Beyonce recorded a 30-second video at halftime. He set his eyes on the biggest unicorn in Michigan maize and blue, Jim Harbaugh. The guy who delivered on a promise to beat OSU, who turned Stanford into a top-10 program, took the San Francisco 49ers from middling franchise to the cusp of hoisting the Lombardi trophy, and who was really UM’s last, best hope at unifying the fractured fanbase. And unlike in coaching searches past, Hackett never lost focus, never made an errant comment to the media, or forgot to bring his phone on a boating trip; he just snagged one of the best 10 football coaches in the world to come to his alma mater and win games, a man who tweets about attacking days with enthusiasm previously unknown to mankind and signs his letters “Sincerely yours in football”.
So yeah, UM is entering yet another season with a different man at the helm, but for once it feels like the stars are aligned. And, yeah, it might still not work out the way everyone hopes, but at least this feels like the right beginning with the right coach leading, and after the last decade of UM football, it feels like a damn miracle.
Worst: Wasting Time
I was skimming the old depth chart and realized, much to my dismay, how many guys were entering their third and fourth years in the program because they wasted a redshirt on a one-game “tryout” as a freshman or, worse, some meaningless special teams play. I mean, I loved Dymonte Thomas’s punt block in the moment, but I’d love it even more if it had come as a RS Freshman and Harbaugh would have another 3 years to mold him into a competent safety. Same with Shane Morris, who played spot duty as a freshman because Hoke failed to watch any game tape, ever, of his QBs behind Gardner. I know that not every coach is crazy about grad transfers, and perhaps the administration was more strict about it, but Shane Morris is now entering his true junior year with years of bad habits and technique to rehabilitate and little incentive by the coaching staff to do so, as he’s apparently behind Rudock this year and has a mountain of competition in 2016. This is all speculation, I’ll admit, but if Morris still had 3 years of eligibility instead of 2, I’m guessing the coaches and fans would be much more optimistic about him leading the team either this year or in the future.
Now, obviously there are going to be guys who will earn early playing time; Peppers didn’t come to UM to sit behind Blake Countess for a season. But there was more competent depth than I think Hoke wanted to admit those first couple of years, and so by wasting whole years on a couple of downs, the vicious cycle of playing younger players early could very well hamper Harbaugh in his first year or two at UM.
I trust that Harbaugh will be able to maximize the players he has on the roster regardless of years left, but it’s just annoying to see Ben Gedeon entering his third year of playing time with a total of 36 total tackles to his name.
Best: Coaching Competence
There’s a meme around here that refers to former UM kicker KC Lopata as the platonic ideal of “Kicking Competency”, a replacement-level college kicker who mostly hit the kicks he was supposed to and missed the others. Coming on the heels of Garrett Rivas, one of the best kickers in UM’s history, it was a letdown, but he at least provided fans a baseline expectation for special teams; get the ball inside the 30 and you were probably good.
Now, I’m not going to say anyone on the last coaching staff was outright incompetent at his job; you don’t get to coaching at a major college program, even one as semi-dysfunctional as UM was for large stretches of the 00’s and 10’s, without being very good at your job, at least abstractly. Brady Hoke didn’t seem to know how to run a team, but he did a solid job building up the defensive line and his recruiting was top-notch. I thought Al Borges didn’t know how to call a game or mold an offense with the pieces provided, but he absolutely knows a great deal about football and, in a vacuum, could devise a slew of offensive plays that would be successful. Doug Nussmeier played in the NFL for a couple of years, was an offensive coordinator at a number of prominent college programs (UW, Alabama, UM, now Florida), and will probably be a HC at some point in the near future. The oft-criticized Darrell Funk showed demonstrable improvements across the offensive line despite limited depth and injuries, Roy Manning tried his best to coach cornerbacks despite not having any experience at that job heading into 2014, and while I’m of the camp that guys like Fred Jackson and Dan Ferrigno (as a special-teams coach) shouldn’t have been holding those positions last year, it’s not like either is devoid of talent or knowledge of the game. It’s telling that most of them struggled to find comparable jobs after Hoke was let go, and a couple (Borges and Ferrigno jump out) were seemingly dragged along by Hoke at his various stops without much additional vetting.
Regardless, it was clear pretty early on last year (and really, the last couple of seasons) that the coaches weren’t “coaching up” to their level just as much as players seemed to underperform compared to ability. Older players seemed as lost as freshmen at times, the offense was consistently bogged down due to poor execution at every major group, the defense struggled to deploy press coverage despite preparing it during the offseason, largely abandoning it once Blake Countess got repeatedly burned against ND and Rutgers, and special teams found ever more impressive ways to not field the right number of players. Last year’s team didn’t have nearly enough talent or experience to overcome these coaching issues, and it showed in the season’s results.
Which is why fans should be as excited about the rest of the coaching staff changes as they are about Harbaugh taking the lead. Everyone knows Harbaugh is a great coach, but with additions of guys like Drevno, Durkin, and Baxter, while also retaining Mattison to help with the defensive line, the team will have a staff that can at least get the players to perform at their expected levels consistently and, you hope, provide the type of guidance and in-the-moment leadership that great teams are built on. Hell, having guys like Wheatley and Zordich at positions they have coached previously and capable of doing more than drown listeners in hyperbole will be a breath of fresh air. The talent is there for UM to be at least competent on offense and very good on defense; I expect the coaches will make sure they are given every opportunity to at least meet this level, if not exceed it.
Best: Actual QB Competition
This should come as no surprise to those who watched Russell Bellomy take snaps against Nebraska, or Shane Morris get trotted out against Minnesota, that Brady Hoke and his offensive coordinators never seemed able or willing to introduce real competition at the QB position except in extreme circumstances. He never recruited more than 1 QB in a class, completely skipping the position in 2012, and made it known to each recruit that he wasn’t going to bring in anyone else to compete for the position in a given year. There are assorted rumors that Messiah deWeaver decommitted from Michigan specifically because Harbaugh planned on bringing in other QB prospects in the class, an about-face to what he heard from Hoke. And I’m not going to slag the quality of the kids brought in each year, but no QB brought in by Hoke has looked capable of starting except for maybe Morris, and even that is tinged with the expectation for massive improvement under Harbaugh’s tutelage. That’s why soul-crushed Devin Gardner was the starter the past two years despite a clear degradation in performance.
Now, that’s all changed since Harbaugh showed up. With Gardner’s graduation, the QB position is one of the real question marks on the team, and Harbaugh addressed it early and often by snagging Iowa’s Jake Rudock’s graduate transfer, John O’Korn’s “regular” transfer from Houston, and recruiting two QBs in the 2014 class (Alex Malzone and Zach Gentry) and potentially 2015 (Brandon Peters and Victor Viramontes). In addition, he inherited Shane Morris as well as Russell Bellomy (EDIT: Bellomy packed up and transfered to UTSA) and Wilton Speight. If you are counting at home, that’s 6 (EDIT: 5) possible QBs this year and 8 (I believe) next year, assuming nobody leaves, decommits, etc. And there’s variety there, from more finesse throwers like Rudock and Malzone to rocket-armed bombers like Morris and Gentry, and a range of athleticism that would work well with Harbaugh’s penchant for dualish-threat QBs.
Now, having eight possible QBs next year when you only have about that many at for all three LBs isn’t optimal, but it is a marked (and necessary) departure from the last couple of years. It’s a bit cliche, but a good QB can spackle over a whole bunch of other issues, and I have to think that had there been better options these past couple years under center, or at least the program drive to promote healthy competition, the offensive sputtering might have been mitigated somewhat. I’m the biggest Gardner homer in the world, but there were games he clearly didn’t have it, and being able to trot out someone, anyone who could settle the team down would have been a godsend, similar to when Tate Forcier would step in for Denard due to injury or inconsistency for a series or two.
All signals point to Rudock and Morris being the only viable starters this year, with Rudock getting the nod right now due to ball security and experience. We’ve all heard the positive buzz around Morris, and I suspect we’ll see him play some this year especially if Rudock struggles (I know Brian has been quick to dismiss his benching at Iowa as just another indictment of Ferentz’s rapidly-loosening grip on his sanity, and his stats looked fine given the offense he was stuck in, but I’ll have to see him on the field before I’m completely comfortable), but when you can get a fifth-year senior with starting experience, you don’t put him on the bench unless Morris just absolutely outplays him. Besides, this year isn’t one where UM is competing for a conference title BUT they need to get back to winning football games they should – that means beating your Rutgers and Marylands of the world. Rudock gives them the best chance out of the gate.
Best: The Gang’s (Mostly) Back
In what feels like forever, Michigan won’t be breaking anyone new into the starting lineup this year, with the only major addition being OC/OL coach Tim Drevno, one of the better offensive line coaches in the country. It’s been said a million times before, but offensive lines do best when they have continuity and experience (talent helps, and UM has a good amount of that as well), and this year’s team should have 4 upperclassmen starters and a true sophomore (Cole) who ably filled in from “go” at left tackle last year. Depth behind the starters remains a bit scary (LTT, JBB, and Dawson still seem like projects to varying degrees, and Kugler isn’t really an option outside of center unless you like small guards), so the loss of Jack Miller and Glasgow assuming those snaps, isn’t optimal. My guess is that Kugler will get every chance to take over at center if either of the guards struggle, but right now it looks like one of the better units in the conference both as run-blockers as well as in pass protection.
Worst: Blocky-Catchy-Runny Guys?
To say that Michigan’s offense struggled over the past couple of years would be selling the tire-fire short a bit, but what was so unnerving wasn’t so much that the team failed to execute consistently as much as they never seemed to have a consistent plan or identity except in the broadest of strokes. The nadir of narrow-minded planning was UM trotting out tackle over to out cro-Magnon fellow Neanderthal Minnesota in 2013, but the offensive philosophy under Brady Hoke could best be described as
¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Passing plays often appeared to be 1-man routes, and Devin Gardner was often called on to “improvise” first downs, sacrificing ribs and sternum because the sidelines couldn’t think of something more productive. It led to a whole lotta this:
Now, there won’t be any such questions under Harbaugh, who has shown the ability to meld his general offensive philosophies (power running football, multiple tight ends with frequent pre-snap motion) with the talent available. He turned Toby Gerhart into a dominant college back and a 2nd-round draft pick, Tyler Gaffney into an All American, and a bunch of guys who should probably be working as associates at hedge funds into NFL TEs. And oh yeah, he might have had something to do with Andrew Luck being the #1 overall draft pick. As for the NFL, he fixed Urban Meyer protégé Alex Smith enough to nearly get to the Super Bowl, then nearly won it all with Colin Kaepernick. And he showed he could establish a great running game with players lacking elite speed, as Frank Gore enjoyed a bit of a resurgence under Harbaugh.
So the question isn’t whether Harbaugh is capable of producing efficient, sometimes spectacular offenses, but whether the team he inherited has the players to do so this season.
With the departure of the much-maligned Devin Funchess, the receiving core is basically two semi-known commodities (Darboh and Chesson) who probably both top out at competent #2/#3 receivers, a track guy in Chesson who might just be fast and a great special teams blocker, and a bunch of potential that is either freshmen (Cole and Perry), coming off injuries (Harris), or Moe Ways, who will probably get the reputation for being great catching contested balls because he can’t get away from anyone. I know there’s been some buzz about Darboh stepping up, but he collected nearly half of his yards and 40% of his receptions against IU and Miami (NTM), struggling to get separation against anyone else even when Devin Funchess was healthy and, theoretically, drawing more attention from the defense. I’m holding out hope that Canteen takes that next step, but he’s still a guy who looks great on tape but never had more than 1 catch or record more than 8 yards in a single game last year. It also sounds like he might be moving permanently to corner, so what the hell do I know. And while there are those who never thought Norfleet would work at UM as a receiver, I still think he’d be a solid slot option on a team that needs someone to step up. I mean, Perry might have burned his own redshirt given his play in fall camp, but trusting a freshman at that position is always dicey, and I’d rather have an extra year of a senior than a meh freshman season when UM isn’t competing for titles.
There’s definitely some talent here, but unless Harris shows he’s recovered from yet another hamstring injury and can stretch the defense vertically, nobody in the receiving core looks like they’ll put the fear of God in opposing secondaries. That’s a big reason I’m banking on Rudock getting the nod at least to the start the year; this team is going to rely on shorter passes with minimal mistakes to move the ball vertically, and Morris’s arm strength isn’t as helpful when nobody is farther than 20 yards downfield.
Now, if this team is going to have a true downfield threat, it will probably come from the TE position. Jake Butt is the obvious headliner at the position, and I expect him to put up great numbers both as a safety valve for the QBs as well as a key downfield threat. Since Harbaugh likes to roll out multiple TE sets, I also expect Khalid Hill to be involved heavily in the running game as a blocker as well as an extra set of hands. Ian Bunting could be a monster in the right offense if his catching radius is as advertised, but it’s all potential with him thus far and he still needs to show he can transition from WR to the flex TE position Devin Funchess occupied before everyone realized he couldn’t block. A Jim Harbaugh-led offense with Butt as the lead TE should terrify the rest of the conference, but he’s only going to be able to reach his potential if someone else, anyone else can stretch the field or at least keep the secondary from closing in on him on obvious passing downs.
As for the running backs, I don’t know man. I want to believe that someone out of the Smith/Green/Isaac/Johnson parallelogram of runners will emerge as a leader for the position, but right now it sure seems like the pack remains pretty jumbled. With the three guys who actually played last year, you kind of wish you could Voltron them into a single back because THAT guy would be downright unstoppable. Smith feels like the closest analog to what Harbaugh had in Frank Gore, a guy who can work his way through traffic for a couple more yards but isn’t going to run past anyone. Green has all the size and ability in the world but never seemed able to put it all together, and I’ve heard enough questions about his vision and finding holes that he might fall out of favor quickly with Harbaugh. Johnson is coming off another ACL injury, and while he isn’t going to make most guys miss, what we did see last year was a guy who could take what the line got him and bruise past a couple more defenders if he got a step on them. Of the lot, Johnson looked like the most average runner, which sadly probably also made him the best. But he’s still recovering from surgery and (I assume) will have an uphill battle to get playing time this year unless everyone in front of him falls apart.
Ty Isaac has both the pedigree and the look of a #1 back, but struggled at times in USC’s offense and seemed buried on the depth chart at the end of the year. He remains a tantalizing option as a runner and receiver but without the college-level production to quite quiet the nagging doubt you may have.
I suspect that Smith, Green, and Isaac will share playing time to start the year, but for Smith to get a plurality of carries if he can consistently find the hole and get positive yards. This is the prototypical Smith run, and it’s the type Harbaugh loves to see.
Smith will never wow you with his speed, but the guy at the top of UM’s record book wasn’t a burner either. Isaac has that rare mix of size and speed you dream of as a coach, but it sounds like he’s had limited practice reps and hasn’t played a down of “actual” football for over a year. I’ve never been super-high on Green because it did seem like he missed rushing routes more often than the other backs (not to say Smith and Johnson always followed the right path), and unless that’s been addressed in the offseason I don’t see him bringing enough other skills to the table to compensate.
Best: Hoke's Thick Blue Line
You can throw literally any type of rock and hit an issue with Brady Hoke's tenure at UM, but the one thing that he did very consistently was recruit defensive linemen. Of course, this should come as no shock because that was his favored position throughout his coaching career, basically serving in some capacity as a defensive line coach until he took over at Ball St. He inherited some nice linemen in Martin and RVB and turned them loose, creating one of the more dominant short-yardage units in the country during 2011. The next couple of years were less impressive, but the defense always held up reasonably well on the front line and consistently improved against the run. So it should come as no surprise that the defensive line looks to be perhaps the strongest unti on the team even with the loss of Bryan Mone. Maurice Hurst has been getting rave reviews this offseason, while both Willie Henry and Ryan Glasgow should build on solid seasons last year. I know other people have said as much, but if Henry figures out how to actually play the position effectively, he'll be a damn All-American candidate given his natural size and strength.
Now, the one knock against Hoke's defensive line production is that it never figured out how to generate an organic pass rush - every year you'd hear about the team wanting to "Earn the Right to Rush 4", then you'd see Frank Clark chasing a QB into open space and nothing much coming of it. Barring a huge jump by
Taco Charlton or Lawrence Marshall, though, I'm not sure this team will be much better at getting to the QB from the edges. I've been a big fan of Mario Ojemudia because he had a great motor in high school and always seemed faster than he probably was, but it's 2015 and in three years has 6 sacks and remains somewhat undersized. Mattison has always shown a penchant for bringing pressure via the LBs and safeties, so the hope is that him and Durkin will be able to generate pressure that way if it doesn't come from up front, but it's still a bit depressing that both OSU and MSU seem overloaded with rushers while UM is trying to get by with smoke and mirrors.
Best(?): About those Linebackers
You know how I mentioned earlier UM has about as many QBs on the roster as LBs for 2016? Yeah, let’s forget about that for a minute and remember that in 2015, UM should be fielding an all-senior LB core for what feels like eons. Ross, Morgan, and Bolden have all been starters in the past, fending off competent replacements and generally playing at an acceptable level whenever they’ve seen the field. After years of seeing underclassmen thrust into ill-fitting positions, it is refreshing to know that the LBs are deep and experienced, and with the improved defensive line should be a formidable front 7.
And yet, I can’t shake a lingering sense that something is missing. While all three players have been objectively “good” during their time at UM, they have also all been singled out as the weak links before. For all the talk about Morgan’s ability to stop a ball carrier dead in his tracks, he’s still not a great athlete and is coming off an injury that knocked him out all of last year. Bolden led the team in tackles last season but has struggled at times in coverage, and seemed to bust far more often than the other LBs last year when forced to play in space. He also enraged the walking hemorrhoid that is Mark Dantonio by plunging a tent spike into MSU’s field last year, so there’s that. Ross was always touted as a cerebral player but has struggled to keep his spot on the field, losing out to RJS last year (before reclaiming the spot) even though Stone didn’t necessarily drape himself in glory with playing time. Ross is also a bit undersized for the strong side LB, though his ability in coverage should help against spread teams.
I’m suspecting that Ben Gedeon sees a decent amount of playing time, especially given his reputed athleticism and the lack of playmakers along the defensive line; if there is someone who you’d bring on a delayed blitz, you could do worse than a 6-3, 241 lb bowling ball who a rocket strapped to his ass. Despite my reservations, this does feel like a position of strength for the team this year, and since I’m trying to stay optimistic I’ll leave concerns for the coming seasons for next year’s preview, wherein I’ll be too drunk off a Big 10 title to care!
Worst: Covering with 3
Off the bat, I am ecstatic with 3/4 of the defensive backfield. Jourdan Lewis was a revelation last year, and should be one of the best corners in the conference this year. He’s physically aggressive to a degree that belies his size, and his recovery speed led to some spectacular plays last year. He also had 2 INTs and 6 PD to go along with 39 tackles, which is more than a couple of LBs last year (ugh).
We all know about Jabrill Peppers and his exploits; beyond being the Hybrid Space Player on defense, he can move over to corner or safety in a pinch and probably be on the top 3-4 in the conference at those spots. A freak athlete that should have a nice, long NFL career, the only concern I have is that he missed parts of last year due to injury and might take a bit to get his feet under him. Retaining Mattison and not substantially altering the defensive schemes for the secondary should help, though. My only other concern is that there is a lot of pressure put on the kid to be the “next” Woodson by a portion of this fanbase, and so fans may be disappointed if he’s only really, really good this year. I know, a minor concern, and I fully expect him to be a highlight player each game.
As the mantra goes, boring safeties are great, and Jarrod Wilson is like watching freshly-painted walls dry while The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is projected on said wall in a loop. So Jarrod Wilson is going to be so much fun to not hear about this year, and Brad Pitt should probably stick to movies in which he ages chronologically.
The problem with the secondary is that you have to have a second cornerback, or a third safety, or some human being with enough speed to keep up with receivers flying down the field, trying to catch an oblong ball. And that’s where it gets a bit dicey for UM. Blake Countess leaving was a surprise, but at the time people figured he’d been passed by other players on the roster and that with Michigan’s focus on press coverage, Countess’s notorious troubles keeping up with receivers made him the odd man out. Then Wayne Lyons transferred from Stanford’s elite pass defense, and everyone though Michigan was set.
Yet, here we sit a couple of weeks before Utah and Michigan is apparently giving serious looks at converted safety Jeremy Clark and converted WR Canteen, to say nothing of Dennis Norfleet getting a shot at the position in the spring game. I know that Harbaugh loves to tinker with guys and see if any can make position switches for added depth, but I’m not loving the lack of clarity across from Lewis. Again, having Peppers means there’s no need to panic, and Delano Hill sounds like he could slide into a safety slot if necessary to free up Peppers and/or the team can play more nickel coverage with Lyons playing a bit more off the receiver. But these are all sub-optimal solutions, and the expectation seemed to always be that Lyons would take over for Countess. The fact that isn’t the case gives me pause even with the positive buzz you’ve been hearing about Clark and his athleticism.
I still think the secondary will be solid, but if that second corner spot remains in limbo, or Lewis goes down for any sustained period of time, it could derail much of the improvements expected by the front 7.
Best: Fielding 11
John Baxter believes in spread punting. He also believes in fielding 11 men virtually all the time on special teams. Those two factors make him a massive upgrade over the last regime, and that doesn’t get into the massive number of blocked kicks his teams have accrued over the years. It kind of sucks that Dennis Norfleet left right when he might actually have guys in front of him to block on returns, but whoever winds up returning kicks and punts should find it a marked improvement over the Hoke era.
I almost didn’t feel it needed to be said, but it wouldn’t be a Michigan season without the fans irrationally directing all their ire at a certain player for when the team struggles. In years past it was Stevie Brown, Obi Ezeh, Taylor Lewan, Devin Gardner, and Devin Funchess. Funchess, in particular, apparently kicked the puppies and stole the girlfriends/boyfriends of a large percentage of UM fans, as that guy couldn’t buy a break. It didn’t help that he clearly wasn’t 100% all season, but sometimes fans are carrying around flaming hammers and you best not look like a nail.
Part of me wants to believe that the Harbaugh enthusiasm will shield this team from that level of vitriol, but who the heck knows anymore. It isn’t worth speculating, but I am formally asking the readers of this column (and more generally this site) to remember that these are human beings playing a sport largely for your entertainment; they are also in their late teens/early 20’s. Cut them a bit of slack if they miss an assignment or drop a pass. They absolutely do give a shit about this team, and treating them like people with feelings would be fantastic!
Last year I predicted 8-4, 9-3 if MSU or OSU took a step back. Yeah…that didn’t really happen. MSU took a step “back” from the best defense in the country to just one of the best, and OSU won a bunch of games, I guess. I don’t know, I stopped watching after the Pizza Pizza Bowl.
MSU will obviously continue to be one of the better teams in the conference, but last year you saw the cracks in the armor, and though it is true that they were mostly abused by some of the best offenses in the country while shutting down the rest of the conference, that kind of papers over just how abused they were by OSU, Oregon, and Baylor. They gave up 49, 46, and 41 points in those three games, and this year they’ll have to deal with the loss of Ed Davis, a competent starter and maybe the first “major” player MSU has lost to injury during their run. Their offense is still quite good and so I don’t expect a huge dropoff in the win total, but it feels like a team that might be coming back to the pack a bit.
PSU survived their sanctions about as well as you could have expected, somehow discovering a dominating defense while fielding an offense that isn’t terrible. Hackenburg still doesn’t feel like the sure-fire NFL QB he’s touted as, and he does have a bit of Devin Gardner 2014 look behind that shaky line. Still, Franklin has been recruiting like mad, and it looks like they’ll be even more competitive in the near future.
OSU is the defending national champions, and 2014 was supposed to be the rebuilding year. They seem to have an all-conference player at every position, and Draftageddon was basically a Pokemon exercise of collecting as many OSU starters as you could. They’ll win a bunch of games and, barring losing all three QBs, should be in contention for a playoff spot.
The rest of the conference looks mediocre; there’s talent in pockets, but teams like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Nebraska have to replace large parts of their offenses and have question marks at key spots.
As for Michigan, it’s going to be a bit rough this first year, even with MSU and OSU coming to town. On the road against a solid Utah team to start the year may not be that bad simply because of Harbaugh’s manic focus, and Oregon St. and UNLV shouldn’t be too tough. BYU seems like it’s reeling, but Taysom Hill looked like a Heisman contender last year before going down with injury, and like seemingly all BYU players is way older than you think (he’s 25). In 5 games last year he had almost 500 yards rushing and 8 TDs to go along with 975 yards passing and 7 TDs, completing almost 67% of his passes. He’s big, he’s fast, and until proven otherwise I’m not sure UM is built to stop that type of dual-threat option. Unless Harbaugh works some magic, UM is going to lose at least one of those games. Next up are Maryland and NW, which seem like winnable games against teams that are scuttling a bit. MSU follows that, and that feels like a competitive loss with the hope of Harbaugh trolling Dantonio into a catatonic state. Two weeks later it’s off to Minnesota for a rock contest, and you figure UM is due for a letdown against them, Rutgers, or IU. Going to Happy Valley, against that defense, is going to be a tough task, though by that point Hackenburg may be sitting on the sidelines in a full body cast. The showdown against OSU follows to end the season, and UM has played OSU about as tough as anyone these past couple of years. OSU will have come off playing MSU as well, so even if Meyer’s team is deep in the playoff hunt they might not be 100% going into that game.
So it’ll sound a bit of a downer, but this feels like an 7-5 team with the potential to go 6-6 and 10-2 with a 2011-type run of luck. If they look solid against Utah to open the season, I could absolutely see them winning 9 games this year, but I’ve been burned too often recently with optimism and there remain real questions at the skill positions and in the defensive backfield, to say nothing of the QB battle.
So thanks for reading this far. I hope to make these more specific and less of a general overview for specific games, and please feel free to leave comments below with suggestions. And yes, I forgot to put in a reference to professional wrestling. Oh wait…
So I’ve always written these diaries as close to the actual event as possible, to capture my in-the-moment thoughts on the games. But with a bit of a down period on the horizon, I figured I’d take a crack at trying to recap games from the past. So this is the first in what I hope will be a semi-regular “Retro” diary series of famous Michigan games in the past. While I have my list, I welcome any suggestions in the comments. They can be football, basketball, hockey, anything you want, provided I can find a video of it somewhere online.
A Little History
Ah 1997, when Puffy was considered new on the scene...
As I’ve come to realize recently, there are LOTS of UM fans who were not born/young’ins when Michigan last won a national championship. Me, I was a junior in HS, so for some of you this is probably a baby talking to a slightly younger baby. But with these retro posts, I’m going to provide a bit of context, both as I remember it as well as from history, surrounding these games.
At the start of the season, expectations for Michigan were pretty tempered. Lloyd Carr was entering his third year, his first two seasons being 4-loss affairs that continued matching 8-4 years during Gary Moeller’s last two seasons. They were coming off a 3-point loss in the Outback Bowl to Alabama, played at Houlihan’s Stadium, known at the time as the “Big Sombrero” and now as a shameless attempt to capitalize on the lasting legacy of Patches O’Houlihan.
Anyway, Michigan seemed mired in an extended post-Bo doldrums, good enough to finish toward the bottom of the top-25 but certainly not an elite national team. Honestly, the one notable thing Carr’s teams did consistently was upset OSU on their way to undefeated seasons, twice beating OSU when the Buckeyes were ranked #2 in the country. Carr absolutely owned John Cooper, which on one hand was glorious to watch when it happened but also infuriating given how Michigan was still usually headed to some crappy mid-Florida bowl each year.
Michigan entered the year ranked #14, one of those gentleman rankings bluebloods like UM got each season because sports writers were REALLY lazy in the 90’s and apparently every season started with a hit of the old reset button on the Playstation. Their first game was against Colorado, returning to the scene of the crime. But Kordell Stewart, Rashaan Salaam, and Michael Westbrook were long gone, and Michigan absolutely shut down the Buffs 27-3. Baylor was equally plastered the following week, and then Notre Dame put up an admirable fight before falling.
Michigan finally was on the road to open the B1G season against IU, and the less said about that game the better for the Hoosiers. Northwestern followed with similar results, and all of a sudden Michigan was 5-0 having given up a total of 26 points(!), 14 of which came against ND.
And then Iowa happened. If Twitter had existed during this era, it would have been a bloodbath in that first half. Iowa had a solid offense and an underrated defense, and ended the first half with a flourish, picking off a Griese pass with a bit over 2 minutes to go, scoring quickly, and then pinning UM deep again. With about 20 seconds to go, everyone just hoped Michigan would go into the half down 6 and regroup. Then Tim Dwight caught a deep punt at midfield, made basically everyone miss twice, and scored a TD to send Iowa into the half up 14. It was dinosaur punting when those beasts plodded across the Midwest in droves, but for the rest of the half every time Dwight touched the ball (he nearly took a kickoff back as well) you could hear diamonds being made in the tightened sphincters of UM fans in the stands. Luckily, Michigan’s defensive line really stiffened and the offense did just enough to pull that game off. But Iowa was the type of game Michigan seemed to blow every year, and after that escape you could see the excitement really start to build around this squad.
MSU came next and, got, well…
Minnesota was steamrolled the following week, and then came the huge showdown at #2 Penn State. The Nittany Lions had joined the conference in 1992, went undefeated in 1994, and began 1997 as the #1 team in the country. They entered the game undefeated as well, and while the Fightin’ Paternos hadn’t looked dominant all year, it was still a team with a number of NFL picks (though they all had disappointing careers to varying degrees), including the #1 and #2 selections in 2000 (Courtney Brown and LaVar Arrington) and the #5 in 1998 (Curtis Enis).
Michigan absolutely demolished them, to a degree that was, honestly, shocking given the opponent and the fact the game was at Beaver Stadium. Michigan led 24-0 at halftime, 34-0 heading into the 4th, and it probably wasn’t even that close. To say fans were excited after the win would be a bit of an understatement. With that win, Michigan ascended to #1 in the country, and followed it up with another quality win at Wisconsin, who were without 1999 Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne due to injury, though Michigan had consistently stymied Dayne during his collegiate years.
With all the preliminaries out of the way, #4 OSU came to the Big House looking to return the favor as spoiler of Michigan’s perfect season, themselves riding high after having only lost to then-#1 PSU, and featuring one of the best WRs in college football in David “proto-HGH enthusiast” Boston. The war of words started early between him and Woodson, culminating in one of those on-field fights where guys threw hands but nobody was ejected because people understood that human beings can get some aggression out on a football field without worrying how it would affect the children!
Oh yeah, and Woodson also cemented his Heisman Trophy season with an iconic return.
It also led to one of my favorite Sports Illustrated covers ever.
With that win, it was on to Pasadena and the Washington State Cougars, which is where I start doling out the Bests and the Worsts.
Best: Past With a Blast
I'll start off by saying that this was one of the weirdest f*cking Michigan games to watch, especially 17-odd years later.* I’ll obviously get into particular elements in greater detail, but watching these older games, you are struck with just how much the college game has evolved even in the last 10-15 years. Now, I know that is a pretty obvious statement, so let me explain.
Take, for example, the speed of the game. Initially I thought everyone was just slow because they were less athletic, that college football was still trying to escape the vortex of “traditional” football gameplans that were closer to attrition than strategy, like two warring armies meeting in the middle of a field and the side with more functioning limbs left at the end was the victor. But that isn’t precisely true, at least in this game; both Michigan and Washington State had gamechangers on both sides of the field, and on a per-play basis there didn’t seem to be some massive athleticism gap (the players did seem smaller than today’s athletes, though at least part could be due to optical differences from weird camera angles and the style of uniforms).
But the difference between this championship game and the one we just saw between Oregon and OSU was how deliberate everyone played. The Cougars oftentimes lined up with 4+ WRs in the game, and Michigan’s base defense was typically a 4-2-5 with liberal amounts of blitzing. But at no point did WSU really push the pace, instead huddling after most plays, allowing Michigan’s defense to get in the necessary substitutions and get set. Ryan Leaf did look to the sidelines and made adjustments at various points, but after a steady diet of Oregon, Baylor, Rich Rod, and Urban these past 10 years, it’s kind of weird to watch a high-powered offense (WSU was #2 in scoring, #4 in passing) just walk up to the line.
And don’t get me started on Michigan’s offense in this game (and really all year). I kind of glossed over it in the recap, but this team ran an offense I could best describe as “don’t screw this up”, which was a little weird given how much talent the team actually had on that side of the ball. It was Mike DeBord’s first year as OC, so if you thought he was innovative in his later years you’d be even more surprised how conservative his playcalling was. Chris Howard led the team in rushing and receiving, and Jerame Tuman and Tai Streets tied for the non-backfield lead in catches and TDs at 24 and 4, respectively. Michigan ran the ball, ran it again, and then either threw a pass out to a RB or Tuman on third down. Once defenses started sucking in, maybe they’d try to beat you deep on playaction or with a bootleg (as they did twice this game). But this team had 17 scoring drives (15 TDs and 2 FGs) of 70+ yards this year, and with few exceptions you could have timed them with a sundial. Yes, Griese set passing records in terms of attempts and completions this year, but with a YPA of 7.4 and a 14:5 TD/INT ratio, it’s safe to assume those weren’t directed very far downfield. In other words, this was a Cialis commercial for the blue beards who grew up praising “3 yards and a cloud of dust”.
And Michigan’s defense, as it had done all year, just ground WSU down throughout the game. I’ll get to it in a bit more detail below, but I thought this was one of the finest defensive lines Michigan has fielded in recent history; not the most talented, but just a bunch of guys who complemented each other perfectly. Couple that with an incredibly speedy LB core (including Dhani Jones and Ian Gold) and that terrifyingly-good secondary, and it was a surreal game to watch given just how fast college football has become.
* Oh, and on a 6-inch phone screen with super-grainy "ripped-from-VHS-to-Youtube" quality, on the 2/3 trains during my commute both to and from work, with a notepad in my hand while a guy with a pet rat hanging out in his jacket is looking at me with an expression that loosely translates to "what's up with THIS weirdo" as I furiously scribbled into said notebook about an AOL commercial (oh yeah, we'll get there).
Worst: The Luck of the Wolverines
It’s always hard to tell looking back how much of it was cosmic forces and how much of it was good defense and the inherent vagaries of the sport, but UM was very lucky they didn’t fall behind WSU early on in this game. This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who watched Carr’s teams throughout the years, but all-everything Michael Black + 4+ WRs wasn’t an equation he was good at solving. Though WSU only scored 7 points in the first half, it could have been much worse had Woodson not had a nice pick of Leaf in the endzone to halt a drive, and then Leaf miss another wide-open TD by inches. WSU WRs also suffered from a number of drops early on, and there were a number of plays where multiple WSU guys where open deep in the middle of the field as the Michigan secondary lost track of them. In fact, I think one of the biggest breaks in the game was Black going off the field late in the first half with a thigh injury, as he never really returned (he had one carry I believe in the 3rd quarter before shutting it down) and WSU’s offense definitely took a step back with Gilmore as the lead back.
And on offense, Griese looked very frazzled to start, throwing a pick and generally looking out of sorts, while the playcalling was basically run, run, don’t turn it over, punt. Michigan scored on a beautiful pass 53-yard pass to Tai Street off playaction, but otherwise that first half was one that could have gotten away from Michigan pretty quickly, and you could sense they knew they had dodged a bullet late in the half and into the second as the team calmed down and started to impose its will on both sides of the ball.
Best: Easily Football-Offended Lloyd Carr
To say that Carr was unhappy with the offense Mike Price was running, at least based on the numerous snarls and dismissive looks ABC cut to on the sidelines, would be an understatement. We all know how Carr had a very specific view of how football should be played and bristled at the notion of deviating significantly from that, but watching Carr try to process the idea WSU would go 5-wide and no backs and reflexively recoil was mesmerizing. I don’t know how to describe it beyond the physical manifestation of every person online who says “the spread won’t work in the Big 10!”, plastered on the head of one of the most successful coaches in college football history.
Now, Lloyd Carr would never be described as having a particularly warm demeanor on the sidelines, whether it be during handshakes with other coaches or answering dumb questions from sideline reporters, so on one hand it shouldn’t be surprising he seemed bothered by it all. And this isn’t a judgment call on him; sure, in 2015 you see an immense amount of offensive nuance, especially in the passing game, but in 1997 nobody was really pushing the pace of the game consistently, especially throwing the ball. Sure, you had your BYU’s and Florida’s finding success through the air throughout the years, but only second-tier teams like Kentucky and Purdue were beginning to exploit speed mismatches in addition to using 4+ receiver formations.
I remember watching this game and being amazed WSU had a 1,000 yard rusher AND Ryan Freaking Leaf on the same team, but it definitely seemed like an outlier situation and not the direction offenses were going. The conventional wisdom was you won with talent and execution. Hell, Nebraska went undefeated this year with a QB barely completing 50% of his passes for a 5:4 TD:INT ratio because they averaged 5.5 rushing TDs A GAME! And while he’d never say it publicly, I’m sure the word “gimmick” popped quite a few times in the video sessions leading up to this game. Carr’s view of acceptable offenses expanded somewhat as his career unfolded, but this was definitely one that seemed to take Carr back a bit.
Worst: And Easily Offensive-Playcalling-Offended BronxBlue
I’m going to provide a list of notable offensive players on UM’s roster in 1997.
- Jeff Backus
- Steve Hutchinson
- Jon Jansen
- Brian Griese
- Chris Howard
- Anthony Thomas
- Tai Streets
- Jerame Tuman
- Aaron Shea
- Charles Woodson
- Tom Brady**
Now, I know all those guys weren’t THOSE GUYS at the same time in 1997, but one of the hallmarks of Carr’s offenses was playing sound, low-variability football whenever possible. When the stakes got higher or the team was trailing, he would oftentimes loosen the reigns a bit, resulting in games like New Math and his final game. But despite oftentimes having an overwhelming talent advantage, the offenses seemed pathologically incapable of putting it on the opponent’s face except in rare circumstances. Hell, look at the 2000 Michigan roster and then remember that that team put up 20 points to 6-6 UCLA, 14 on 5-6 MSU, and a last-second 13 against 9-4 Wiscy. Yes, they scored 51 in a losing effort to NW, but…
So yeah, watching this game I was reminded how infuriating it was to follow this team at times. While Michigan’s defenses were typically some of the best in the country, the offenses found ever-more-stupefying ways to waste elite talent, or at the very least not beat the doors off of non-baby seals most years. On both of Michigan’s long TD passes, it was because WSU’s suspect corners couldn’t keep up with Michigan’s WRs. It was clear to me, to the people watching at home and stands, to Bob and Keith in the booth, that Michigan could throw against WSU, and yet it was only when the Cougars took a 13-7 lead in the second half did Michigan start to loosen up a bit on offense. And once they did, they went from a team that couldn’t move the ball for a half to one that converted 9/11 3rd-downs in the 2nd half and racked up close to 250 yards.
I guess my other pet peeve that came up during this game was the Thomas Edison-level telegraphing the offense did when they inserted certain players into the game, such as Woodson on offense (Calvin Bell in 2001 was the platonic ideal of this behavior). Because Charles Woodson was an amazing football player, Carr wasn’t afraid to let him touch the ball a couple of times a game on offense, usually on end-arounds, reverses, or deep balls. The problem lied in that when Woodson walked onto the field, it was rarely to do anything else but be the A1 focus of the play. Not as a decoy, a blocker, anything other than the guy who was going to get the ball unless you triple-covered him. As the season rolled on, defenses figured out that the guy killing them on defense was pretty good, and that when he walked out to catch a ball you might as well send two guys his way. In this game, Woodson was on the field for something like 5 plays, resulting in 2 runs, 1 catch, one under-thrown bomb, and one sorta-in-his-vicinity incompletion.
Again, I don’t want to crap too much on a guy who won a NC, but watching this janky offense in 1997 after having just lived through the Hoke era was jarring in how little had changed.
** Yeah, yeah, he was a freshman. I know.
Best: Charles MF Woodson
I don’t need to tell you that Charles Woodson had swagger coming out of his ears. Dude was the first primary-defensive player to win the Heisman, absolutely shut down halves of the field, and just was magical to watch. You’d hear people talk up the merits of guys like Dre Bly, Champ Bailey, and Shawn Springs, and yet nobody could deny how dominant Woodson was as a defensive player. He was fast enough to keep up with any WR, yet big enough to help on the run and serve as a devastating situational pass rusher. Heck, he hit Leaf a couple times in this game, including one on a delayed blitz that nearly led to a pick. He carried himself like a star but backed it up at every occasion. When you watched him you saw a guy who was evolutionarily “better” than most of the guys on the field, and you could take 1997 Charles Woodson and drop him in 2015 and he’d still be one of the best corners in the game. Just a dominant player.
Best: The Rest of the Defense
Obviously Woodson is the name everyone remembers from that unit, plus the record-setting PPG allowed (6.18 before the bowl), but that entire defense was chock full of brilliance. Marcus Ray was one of the better safeties in Michigan history, and on most other teams James Whitley would have been a #1 DB. And while he did seem to have trouble at times in coverage, Tommy Hendricks tackled with a vengeance usually reserved for fathers looking for lost daughters in movies. In particular, there was one tackle on a WSU WR that you seemed to wake up both sides of the field.
The LBs were headlined by Sam Sword, Dhani Jones, and Ian Gold, the latter two having pretty good pro careers in addition to being great college players. Gold and Jones were the type of sideline-to-sideline guys who could play in 2015 without much issue, and Sword currently sits #3 in career tackles at UM. All three gave Michigan immense flexibility in how they ran their defense, highlighted by the fact Lloyd Carr and Jim Herrmann were willing to roll out a 4-2-5 in this game without batting an eye.
I mentioned this earlier, but the defensive line really was one of the best you’d see. Rob Renes was a Sporting News AA at nose tackle as a senior, Josh Williams was stout against the run, and both Glenn Steele and James Hall could just squeeze the air out of a pocket. Again, it wasn’t full of stars (though everyone save Renes has decent NFL careers), but they might as well have added a “Right to Rush 4” patch on their jerseys because they absolutely disrupted offensive gameplans. When Ryan Leaf really struggled in this game, it was when he was under intense pressure from 4-5 guys, and a major reason he never really got on track was because he was always picking Wolverines out of his teeth.
You know how I just gushed over this defense? Well, to prove that nobody’s perfect, it also gave up a 99-yard TD drive in the 3rd quarter that was just one big WTF. Leaf fumbled the snap on first down, yet WSU recovered. On the next play, he threw a kinda-duck for a first down where the aforementioned Hendricks just smacked the WR moments after the ball got to him. From that point on, it was Michigan jumping offsides, letting WRs get between coverages, and whiffing on a reverse that you could see coming as soon as the ball was snapped. Overall I thought the defense looked pretty good in the second half, but for that one drive it was ugly.
Worst: Concussions? Nah!
This being 1997, you saw (a) a bunch of really stiff shots on WRs and QBs that would absolutely have been flagged in the game today, and (b) lots of homespun references to slobberknockers and bell-ringing that, yeah, feels kinda icky given what we now know about concussions. In particular, Glenn Steele absolutely obliterated Ryan Leaf on one play, yet nobody seemed particularly worried about Leaf’s health or current capacity to tie his shoes. I’m not saying Ryan Leaf’s subsequent life struggles are due to anything that happened in this game, but seeing how hard some of these guys were hitting him, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out at least some of his issues trace back to the beatings he took on the field. It was just weird to see some of these borderline-dangerous hits on both sides get glossed over.
Best: Chris Howard
He’ll never be remembered as a particularly great back at UM, but Chris Howard was the perfect player for Lloyd Carr’s offense. For large swaths of this game, it was Howard busting out first-down runs with Cougars bearing down, or turning simple swing passes into big gains. As I noted earlier he led the team in both rushing and receiving on the year, and in this game he rushed for 70 yards and added another 13 on two catches, including a nifty pickup on 3rd down in the first half that helped Michigan get back some field position. He was also a pretty solid blocker as far as I could tell, picking up blitzes and helping to give Griese some time on a couple of big throws in the 4th quarter.
Worst: Bad Anthony Thomas
I’m honestly not sure how widespread this sentiment was in 1997, but Anthony Thomas was one of the most infuriating backs for me to watch early on in his career. He had a tantalizing amount of talent; just a brute who could outrun you as well as (seemingly) run you over. And yet he had some missing trait, some fatal flaw that seemed to hold him back. Much like Derrick Green now, Thomas was a load who somehow still went down at first contact. In this game, he had one nice run for something like 10 yards and then 6 more rushes that went for 0-2 yards. Runs where a LB would clip his legs and he’d go down in a heap. I’m not sure if it was his running style (he was pretty upright), balance issues, lower-body strength, Michigan RB Disliking Gods, or what, but it really wasn’t until his senior year in 2000 when he put it all together, at which point he absolutely demolished guys and was, briefly, a star in the NFL. Chris Perry followed a similar trajectory while he in A2, and so if you are one of those people bothered by Green’s inability to be the Mooseback he seemed destined for a couple years ago, Thomas looms out there as the potential upside to a guy Figuring It Out. But yeah, watching this game brought back some bad memories for me.
Worst: Come On Man
At one point in the first half of this game, Lloyd Carr punted from the WSU 38. The resulting kick netted him 15 yards. That is all.
Best: No 1997 News Cycle
So Bob Griese, father of Brian Griese, and Keith Jackson, WSU alum and former Cougars radio announcer, were calling the Rose Bowl. In 1997, this was noted in a couple reports leading up to the game but that was it. In 2015, I can’t imagine how many talking heads would have chimed in about the potential “conflicts of interest” involved in two grown men calling a game in which they might have very minor rooting interests. Remember Larry Fitzgerald’s semi-biased coverage of his son in a pretty obscure publication leading up to the Super Bowl some years ago, and how big a deal that became relative to its importance? If one of Kirk Herbstreit’s sons ever winds up playing for an NC and he’s on the call, I fully expect Twitter to just melt down under the deluge of complaints.
In this game, Jackson made one quip to Griese about him not knowing Brian could throw the ball that far on a deep completion to (I believe) Street, but otherwise they acted like two professionals, capable of calling a game objectively despite rooting interests in certain outcomes. It was refreshing.
Best: Quick Hits
Here are a couple of quick points that don’t need their own section.
- This was the internet in 1997. You went to AOL and entered a keyword to search because the idea of dedicated URLs was still pretty “new”. I was amazed Prodigy hadn’t gotten the business first.
- Ryan Leaf was terrifying in college. I know he was a colossal bust in the pros, but he had a cannon of an arm, was reasonably accurate for the time, and was deceptively fast for a guy his size. It’s crazy in retrospect, but he looked like like a worthy challenger to Peyton Manning as the #1 overall draft selection, and even in this game he played with a fearlessness and toughness that really helped keep WSU in the game against a more talented UM squad.
- Apparently both of these teams were some of the most-penalized teams in the country that season. It amazes me that any Lloyd Carr team would play that cavalierly, but I guess it was a different era in more ways than one.
- Russell Athletics were the official jersey sponsor of Washington State. I can only imagine that they bought their warm-ups from Eastbay.
Worst: The Pass Interference that Wasn’t Called
If you hear people complaining about this game, what they usually argue about is the weird clock management at the end of the game wherein the clock ran out as WSU spiked the ball with 2 second left on the clock. What tends to come up less often is the absolutely terrible offensive PI that allowed the Cougars to even get to midfield. It was third down, under 30 seconds to go in the game, and WSU is deep in their own territory. Ryan Leaf drops back to pass, scrambles a bit, and then just heaves the ball downfield. Look at the screenshot above, and understand that as the ball started to descend it was coming up short. Woodson slowed down to pick it off, and Taylor just shoved him out of the way, in front of at least 1 official, and pulled it in. Jackson thought it was a pick, and then both him and Griese vocally complained that it was obvious offensive PI. It was insanity when it happened, and on review is even more amazing that it wasn’t called or that Woodson didn’t absolutely lose his mind.
Had Michigan lost this game, that would have gone down as one of the worst calls in Michigan history. As it is, it is just an amazingly incompetent one.
Worst: Hucking Fornhuskers
We all know what happened following this game. Nebraska plastered Peyton Manning’s Tennessee Volunteers in the Orange Bowl the next day, one of the many arrows in the “Peyton Manning couldn’t win the big one” quiver that people had against him for most of his early career. Coupled with Tom Osborne’s retirement, the Cornhuskers somehow leapfrogged Michigan to split the national title, winning the Coach’s Poll in what felt like a retirement gift to Osborne. Discussion of the Flea Kicker against Mizzou is treated as sour grapes for some reason, but let it be said that Nebraska was a very good team that chewed people up on the ground but was a pretty terrible team throwing the ball. It would have been a great game to see, and the controversy led to the creation of the BCS championship game.
So I hope you enjoyed this diary. If you have a game you’d like to see me review, by all means post it below.
This post was initially designed to be a "so far" diary because it was written right around the time the initial Harbaugh offer was made. Then the holidays happened, the narrative fluctuated a bit at the fringes but didn't change much, and now we basically have confirmation that It's Happening! So some of this might sound a bit more reserved than intended, but I tried to update it where I could. I am sure much more will be written, perhaps by me, as it relates to Harbaugh in the coming weeks. Still, I figured I have more than enough content to surround animated gifs and references to professional wrestling, late-90's movies, and funny dog pictures. So enjoy. Also, Harbaugh!
Best: Big Boy Pants
The absolute biggest concern I had coming into this coaching search was watching Michigan's athletic department flub, flounder, and fart its way through the process like it did in 2007 and 2011. In 2007 it was Bill Martin floating around on a boat, seemingly caught off guard by Lloyd Carr's decision to retire despite Carr saying he wanted to in 2006 and having to be convinced to give it one more go by both Martin and President Coleman. This of course led to Les Miles being asked about taking over for Michigan while preparing to play for the national championship, which looked pretty bad when it happened and looks even worse now given how disorganized the search turned out to be behind the scenes. At the time, I think most people figured it was just Herbstreit reporting rumors prematurely, and when Michigan wound up with Rich Rodriguez it felt like an irrelevant misstep at worst.
Then in 2011, with RR gone after a desultory bowl loss to the Fightin' Mullens (until this season probably his 3rd or 4th most-impressive victory in his career), we all expected Dave Brandon to, I don't know, not be an idiot and actually perform a legitimate coaching search for a viable replacement. It isn't worth rehashing here for the same reason I don't let the 1 train's doors slam shut on my fingers, plus there are so many rumors and half-truths (Harbaugh said yes, Brandon scared him away! Brady Hoke was Michigan's #1 choice after Harbaugh! My gawd King, is that Kirk "Puntasaurus" Ferentz's music!) that is is hard to ascertain fact from fiction. What we do know is that Michigan wound up with a guy with basically a .500 record who coached like one, save for a glue factory of horseshoes in his ass during the 2011 season.
Now, there have been a couple of themes throughout the past two coaching searches: a dogged preference for "Michigan Men" who can placate a calcifying segment of the fanbase that maybe doesn't think football stopped innovating in 1997 but absolutely thinks those changes don’t apply to Michigan, "Fort Schembechler " having so much palace intrigue and agenda-driven leaks that nobody had control of the narrative, and displaying some of the worst timing this side of a 2014 UM 2-minute drill. But probably the biggest theme over these past 2 coaching changes, and really of the last decade or so, is the second-rate nature of it all. For a university so renowned for its educational and research accomplishments, for proclaiming itself a "leader and best" in so many fields and backing it up, and for having one of the most storied athletic programs in college sports history, its search for a head man seemed to lack much in the way of foresight, professional execution, or, frankly, prestige. It isn't uncommon for teams to "settle" on a second or third option, but usually after a strong play for their first choice. With Michigan's most recent coaching transitions, though, it seemed like they thought "This is Michigan" was enough.
That's why this search, even with its extended googly-eyes session with Harbaugh, was so refreshing; it finally felt like the Powers That Be were treating this like a big deal and actually acted accordingly. While the exact terms might still be a bit in flux, $49M over 6 years represents the type of offer a school like Michigan should be making for the man who will spearhead its multi-million dollar football team. No pussyfooting around, not "preliminary offer" to get negotiations started. Hackett and co. looked at the landscape, identified Harbaugh as the top candidate, and made it rain.
For all of Dave Brandon's odes to marketing buzzwords and bottom-line business acumen, and Brady Hoke's passion for "Big Boy" football, they never seemed to willing or able to translate those words into results. It was Hackett, for what feels like the first time in an eternity, who actually acted like an executive, made a plan, and followed through on it efficiently and effectively. Even if by some insane confluence of events Michigan doesn't get Harbaugh, it won't be for lack of effort or resources; it'll be because Jim Harbaugh doesn't want to coach at Michigan in 2015. It'll be because he wants to remain an NFL coach, because he has "unfinished business", because billionaire private owners will pay him way more than a public state institution should ever, whatever. And Michigan will move on, not with a sense of desperation or befuddlement that the Block M and The Victors didn't seal the deal, but with some purpose. That's all I think most people want to see out of the AD, and though the jury's still out on Hackett being a long-term solution, there's a sense of confidence and competency displayed thus far that puts the similar efforts of Brandon and Martin to shame.
If you want to read my thoughts on the idea of Harbaugh coaching, go back and check out my OSU recap. Not a lot has changed, save that I am a bit more optimistic now that he's coming to Michigan with intentions on sticking around for a bit, with the siren song of the NFL less appealing than I first thought. I mean, there are options out there for him if he wanted to stick around in the pros (Jets and Chicago are big-market teams, while the Raiders are at least nearby), yet he's shown no real interest in doing so. This is obviously a great hire for Michigan, and it feels like, for once, a confluence of events has led to everyone involved finding each other as the best option. Given what has happened the past decade or so, that feeling of contentment shouldn't be discounted. Plus, it looks like he is going to breathe some fresh air into the program by bringing in people he's familiar with, including those with (Wheatley) and without (Durkin) connections to the university. That can only help clear out some of the lingering staleness of the recent past, and any concerns about lost "institutional memory" are pretty trivial given how dysfunctional this program has been with the stalwarts in place.
I will be a bit of a wet blanket on two fronts, though, as it relates to the hire. First, in the short term (i.e. the 2015 season), I'm not expecting an amazing turnaround, at least against the good-to-elite programs on the schedule. Michigan is going to play 3 Power-5 quality outfits in the OOC (BYU is an independent but would be in the upper-half of the B1G if they joined tomorrow), including opening at Utah. The Utes might be going through a coaching transition (they are already down a couple coordinators), but that's still a very good defensive team that should be competitive in the PAC-12 next year. They do get MSU and OSU at home, but good lawd is OSU terrifying offensively and MSU should be pretty solid offensively with Cook back in the mix to complement that stout defense. I think MSU's fall from elite to very good will continue, but this isn't the MSU-UM rivalry Harbaugh probably remembers (3-1 during his four years, including wins of 27-6, 31-0(!!), and 42-0(!!!)), and all the good vibes and memes aren't going to make the WRs any faster, the QB any more experienced, and the cornerbacks any better at sticking with receivers. Plus, Michigan is looking down the barrel of trips to PSU, Maryland, and Minnesota, so it isn't going to be the smoothest of transitions back to the college game for the new coach. I'm not predicting another 5-7 campaign, and there is A LOT that will change between now and early September, but it is going to be a multi-year process for Michigan to get back to being the "Michigan" Harbaugh helped create, and barring Harbaugh pooping golden horses with a million lucky golden horseshoes, I don't expect a repeat of Hoke's first year record-wise for Jim.
The second, slightly more far-reaching concern...okay, not "concern", but inevitable annoyance is going to be that this will likely not be Harbaugh's last dance with the NFL, which means I'd be surprised if he completes the full term of his current contract before leaving again for the NFL. As others have noted, this isn't a guy going back to college because he stumbled in the NFL, and there are always going to be doors open for him to return provided he is successful at Michigan. I have little doubt that he won't, which means in 3-4 years there are going to be legitimate murmurs about Harbaugh making a return to the NFL, hopefully fueled by multiple 10+ win Michigan seasons and a return to the upper-echelon of college football. You look at other successful programs and nobody is knocking down the door for Saban, Meyer, Fisher, Dantonio, etc., so at least they have one less distraction to deal with each offseason. I suspect virtually all Michigan fans will accept that bargain, but it is an ongoing din that will only get louder the better Harbaugh does at UM. My hope is that if/when he does move on, the program will be back to its normally stable position so that the next guy will have an easy transition and, heck, there might actually be a legitimate coaching tree by then. So in summation, this is totally awesome you guys!
Best: Stability + Desirability = Awesomeability
With news that D.J. Durkin was waiting on Harbaugh to go to Michigan before joining him as defensive coordinator, plus scattered reports of Swag Mattison sticking around at least one more year, Michigan is enjoying one of those rare occurrences (at least around these parts) of optimism and stability that are usually a hallmark of successful programs. Durkin has basically been sitting on the DC position at Texas A&M for a week, yet apparently wants to get the band back together with Harbaugh and should be a welcome addition. And yes, being a DC under a defensive coach like Muschamp brings with it the usual questions of how much influence he had at Florida, but this is still a guy with the trajectory of a top-notch assistant who'll be a head coach sooner rather than later.
With Mattison possibly returning, that should help stabilize recruiting a bit in the vacuum between now and Harbaugh getting on the road, and should help reaffirm a couple of wavering guys, to say nothing of the boost the trips will have once Harbaugh gets going. This will be a small class, but with a crack recruiter in a position of some authority, that will only help the transition. Again, it's a long way to even NSD, and most of the staff remains in limbo, but Michigan should enjoy the best of both worlds with this coaching change.
It isn't news to anyone on MGoBlog that the internet can be both your best friend and worst enemy when it comes, well, pretty much anything, but especially when something as "newsy" and ripe for misdirection and hearsay as a coaching search. For every legitimate insider report or guy who actually knows a guy, you'll read a dozen random Twitter handles with 10k tweets and 25 followers, and pages of forums posts fueled by someone's brother's girlfriend's sorority sister's dad's second cousin's landscaper's adopted uncle's burned-out podiatrist's receptionist's albino twin who ran into a junior associate in the athletic department at Meijer who was buying two 12-packs of Dr. Pepper (which we all know is Jim Harbaugh's 3rd favorite drink after Earl Grey tea and the tears of MSU fans OMGOMGOMG! It's Happening!), proclaiming to know what the future holds both in terms of the front-runner as well as the internal politics, backup plans, and related scuttlebutt that drives web traffic in the modern era well after the actual thing you should care about has been resolved. Obviously you can figure out who is right and who is wrong once you have some perspective, but the internet is kinda the wild wild west when it comes to rumors, and those first couple of weeks are just chock full of idiots wanting some attention.
And to make matters worse, social media and the clear NFL/CFB divide in terms of biases creates a whole new class of semi-informed, semi-credible pundits with the lowest barrier to entry probably since you could literally stand in the middle of a town square and yell whatever you wanted at people as they passed by.
On one hand, the ubiquity of the internet lets information be relatively "free" not only in terms of who possesses it but who can disseminate it quickly; you don't need to be a friend of Ed Werder, Jay Galzer, or Chris Broussard to be given a platform to be heard; a Twitter account and $10/mo. for a "premium" account is more than enough to tell the world what you know about a hot topic, sometimes well before more established voices catch wind of it. And that, to some, is incredibly valuable information that needs to be made available as soon as possible. And while I'm sure some print journalists still yearn for their own "Deep Throat" (I'll wait...) with an established paper trail of sorts, it's far more likely that the "first" source to report something will be some random guy, because random people have little to lose if they are wrong and lots to gain, even temporarily, if they are right.
But on the other hand, what it also creates is just wave after wave of bullshit to sift through for these few nuggets of actual wisdom. I joke about the circuitous route some rumors go through, but read some Reddit or 24/7 threads and it's just burner accounts from guys at airports, janitors on night shifts, and gym buddies telling you they heard from some "big money donor" or a "buddy" whose family knows someone that something big is going down, that some assistant is booking tickets to an airfield, that rooms are being repainted and new placards being designed, and all of a sudden you've got people freaking out or celebrating, while reporters and more trusted sources of information are left scrambling to verify while sifting through all the copy-cats and trolls. It's draining to watch as an observer, and I don't even need to give a crap. And along the way, people get burned enough that lines in the sand are drawn and opinions calcify, creating a certain level of acrimony and zealotry throughout the process that creates the perfect feedback loop, where anyone who says what you want to hear is credible and anyone else is lying, an idiot, or a troll.
This race for "scoops" also creates the shit-throwers like Gregg Henson and Football Scoop who basically "report" everything they can think of in the hope that enough of it is right that people forget everything else they make up. I mean, technically they are true, but Paul the Octopus also had a nice streak going but I don't remember him trying to drive traffic to his blog. And in virtually all cases, these same guys tried to inflate their numbers by claiming the most obvious things as "news" (Brandon to be fired! Michigan is looking at Harbaugh! Lots of money is involved!). I'm sure these guys had some "sources" as they were; you sniff around enough and someone will talk. But now every time one of these guys fires off some harebrained "insider scoop" about a team, they'll have that whiff of undeserved credibility.
I get that it doesn't really matter in the end; I doubt Jim Harbaugh even knows this exists, let along how many times it's been posted across the internet. But I get why lots of fans don't obsessively follow this stuff, those who will probably see an interview on ESPN or read an article on Yahoo! about Harbaugh coming to Michigan and say "that's nice" and forget about it until the fall. The end result never changes, and at least they didn't spend weeks getting worked up about an anonymous purchase order for Dockers in size "Awesome!" being found in the Ann Arbor dump.
Worst: No F*cking way League
So yeah, I'm bitching about all of the dubious stories coming out of the internet's nether-region, but most of them all pointed toward a single reality: Jim Harbaugh is going to be the next coach of Michigan football. Sure, some tales were painted of him torn between another run in the pros and returning to the college game, and that certain teams might also be in play, but the vast majority of the rumors, especially amongst those most connected and accountable, were positive on Michigan. Well, except one group...
With the NFL guys, you are dealing with people who basically all default to the NFL PR view, but with the critical distinction that some are willing to at least entertain the possibility of some other reality also being possible. With the Schefter type, they live and breathed The Shield for so long that it takes them a couple of weeks to cut through the fog, but at least they are at least willing to reexamine their sources and accept the alternative reality. It's infuriating because they've bought into the arrogant argument that coaching in the NFL is a one-way street until the League dismisses you, but given the levels of delusion we've seen from people in charge these past couple of years it's not surprising how potent that kool-aid can be.
Then you've got guys like Tim Kawakami and Greg Gabriel who, for lack of a better word, are just ignorant about anything outside of the worldview they've crafted over decades of sitting in media rooms talking to the same 10-15 people and passing off recycled dribble as interesting and thoughtful commentary. For them, questioning the NFL isn't even possible because it seemingly violates some hard-coded rule in their own lives; you don't deviate from the norm because that would be admitting failure or, worse, that the world is evolving in ways they aren't willing to accept. To a man, I suspect you'd get a similarly dismissive response if you asked them about the viability of "bloggers".
I'll admit to being biased, but beyond the money and whatever self-affirming gains you get from being at the "top" of your field, I don't see the appeal of an NFL gig anymore. You never have complete control of a team, regardless of your titles, because a billionaire owner/group can always make your life a living hell if they disagree, you have to deal with a bunch of men who make quite a bit of money (oftentimes much more than you) and don't usually like being yelled at by their boss, the level of transgressions tend to be higher and more severe in the pros versus college, and with few exceptions you are only as good as your last season. I mean, Harbaugh will be coming to UM after one of the most successful first-time runs in NFL history, and yet because Colin Kaepernick regressed and a couple LBs got hurt (Patrick Willis) or went kinda crazy (Aldon Smith), he is on the outs and the born-on-third/thought-he-hit-a-triple Jed York is leading the charge. Say what you will about meddling college presidents, but most of them are smart enough to stay out of coaching situations until their hands are forced, and with the AD acting as a firewall a coach is going to enjoy far more freedom in college than he'd have in the pros, to say nothing about recruiting and player development benefits. And in this case, Michigan is going to pay a competitive salary, one that treats Harbaugh as one of the best at his position. This is a long way of saying I don't think Harbaugh (who just got through the inevitable clown show that ends most NFL tenures) sees this as much of a demotion, and while there will still be a couple of NFL guys dying on their wrong swords of wrongness, hopefully by the time Jim Harbaugh is running spring practice a good 75-80% of the NFL reporters will admit that Michigan has a chance.
Regardless, I do think we'll see quite a few of these responses coming from that brood in the coming weeks.
Best: Puntasaurus Extinction?
Hold onto your butts, because with any coaching transition there are going to be changes. But probably none will be as necessary and welcomed as (I hope) Michigan's transition away from the dinosaur "pro" punt style that existed under Hoke. And really, it's extinction was a long time coming. It's the perfect blend of barely-there upside (slightly easier to fake out of) and huge downsides (huge yards available for returns, over-reliance on unpredictable hangtime, less flexibility to address aggressive pressure) that made it an eyesore when it was happening and looks even more insane in retrospect. It basically cost Michigan the bowl game against USC, let Utah's Clay strike the most unnecessary Heisman pose, and consistently gave up gobs of field position that, at best, put Michigan's defense in tough spots. Because of rule differences between the NFL and CFB you don't see the Shield punt formation in the pros, so I guess I'm not 100% sure that Harbaugh won't keep lugging out the tired Spread punt formation, but since he seems to have a functioning cerebral cortex I expect Michigan will go with the more effective and prevailing formation. And while that will be a good day for Michigan football, it'll be a sad day for the few remaining puntasauruses walking the earth. Maybe InGen will bring one of them back from the fossilized remains of Kirk Ferentz.
Oh...apparently I've been informed by Google that he's still alive and being paid to coach. My apology to Iowa fans.
Best: Nobody Else is Happy
There is a saying that you'll know how good/bad a guy is based on how his current fans talk about him and his departure. When a stud coach/player leaves, you'll typically read knowledgeable fans lament the loss and speak glowingly about his past accomplishments. When he's kind of a dud, everyone makes jokes and criticizes his failings. But an equally-useful gauge of a new hire's overall perception is how rival fans respond to him coming on board, and in this case it is pretty universal that, well, MSU and OSU partisans are having a bad time.
I won't link to specific threads, but go to their respective boards and you'll read a lot of "I can't wait to beat that smug look off his face" or "He's not that great anyway. Plus, it'll be years before he's good." Yes, there are rational fans who recognize that Harbaugh is a good hire, but these aren't the "hur hur you have a fat coach" stuff you heard when Hoke was hired. Harbaugh is going to piss off a lot of people and give plenty of "material" for rival fans to latch onto, but this feels like Michigan is "back", and coupled with OSU and MSU losing significant cogs on their staffs (Herman to Houston, Narduzzi to Pitt), you can see the ire ratcheting up for both fanbases that absolutely took pleasure in Michigan's recent struggles. At least with OSU, that team has been a premiere program for decades even when Michigan was at its height; this is a rivalry again, not a clear ascension. But MSU fans seem supremely upset specifically because a returning Michigan probably pushes them down a peg in the conference; they'll still be a tough out as long as Dantonio is there, but that first handshake between the two is going to extra salty, and with more and more teams starting to "figure out" MSU's defense (at least the elite offenses are; we'll get a good idea how they respond against Baylor), I get a sense that Spartan fans are seeing that door close.
Best: Did I Mention Harbaugh? Also, Finally We Can All Get Back to Our Lives!
My wife sent me this gif while I was typing this up. This pretty much sums up the last couple of weeks.
Let's get to it. I was traveling most of Sunday, so this is going up a bit late.
Worst: Tapping Out
I know I'm just a guy who writes a couple of paragraphs interspersed with animated gifs a week about Michigan football, but man was this a tiring season. The on-field play was bad enough, but then you have everything with Hoke, Brandon, player injuries, Shane Morris's concussion, Frank Clark's domestic violence situation, and everything else that turned what should have just been a bad season into a clown show. It's a testament to the coaches and players that they remained as upbeat and non-homicidal as they did, but I would love nothing more than for next season to be overwhelmingly boring. I know some people have knocked Brian for not keeping up with the UFRs and the like, but if I had to watch replays of this season intensely and try to tease out meaning going forward, I'd never leave my room or bathe.
Worst: A Very Brady Holiday Game
It's already been said, but this season epitomized the Brady Hoke experience at Michigan. The game could not have started worse, with Gardner throwing a headless turkey of a pass that was intercepted by OSU, and the Buckeyes quickly capitalized with a TD. The next drive featured two huge sacks by OSU's stud line, and it felt like the rout was on. But then Michigan held tough, scored on a couple of long drives, and would have entered the half with the lead had (sigh) they not given up an all too-familiar end-of-the-half TD run to Barrett. Still, for over a half Michigan looked like they could hang with one of the best teams in the country, seemingly playing up to the talent on the recruiting trail if not on the field. Of course, the fact "keeping up with OSU for part of a game" qualifies as a positive sign for UM is pretty damning praise. But whatever, the Game felt like a game for the second year in a row despite the trajectory of the club coming in.
But every Michigan fan has seen this movie a million times, and there's a reason Hoke has been various hot seats since midway through 2012. His teams seem capable in spurts, but against elite teams they fall apart amid a cloud of janky offenses, overwhelmed/non-adaptive defenses, and the types of mental errors and coaching mistakes that you just don't see with other top programs. Outside of one completion to Devin Funchess, Michigan's offense plugged along but never really exploded; it's a testament to their determination and heart that they scored 28 points, but they needed drives of 7, 15(!), 12, and 9 plays to do it, and none were shorter than 75 yards. On one hand, that was the most consistent offensive performance the Wolverines have shown against a team with a pulse all season, but it also highlighted how uncreative/un-explosive the team has been all year.
The defense did what it could, forcing OSU to punt 4 times, which feels like some type of record, but it also gave up nearly 500 yards and struggled to deal with yet another mobile QB, as Barrett ran for 2 TDs and threw for another before breaking his ankle. Michigan had trouble getting pressure all day, failing to record a sack and only really threatening a handful of times. OSU converted on 7 of 13 3rd downs, and... you know, it just wasn't good. On paper they played well enough, but Michigan's long drives kept OSU's offense off the field as much as Michigan's play did, and they still dropped 35 points on 9 meaningful drives, and with a chance to boot OSU off the field on 4th-and-1 down 7, Michigan gave up a nearly-untouched Ezekiel Elliott 44-yard TD run that effectively ended the game.
On one hand, it was an entertaining game for one of the few times all year, and Michigan played with the passion, cohesiveness, and efficiency great teams display against other top programs. Watching this game, it looked for long stretches like two national-caliber teams out there, trading shots in a meaningful rivalry game. And then reality set in and Michigan reverted to the team we've seen for years now, one incapable of just keeping pace, of playing the type of fundamentally-sound, "big boy" football its coaches expound upon every week and claim they see every day in practice. Michigan played like an overmatched underdog holding close, like a more historically-relevant Indiana or Illinois, and not the team a decreasingly-number of diehards claim are a "rival" to OSU.
Hoke should be and probably is gone, and I'll get to my feelings about the likely successors. These last two weeks showcase the best and worst of his tenure as a head coach, and the fact that means two semi-competitive losses is the perfect summation as to why they should be his last at UM.
Best: Why Can't They Make the Whole Season Out of OSU's Defense?
To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, if Michigan is only capable of playing this way offensively when they line up against OSU, they might as well just schedule the Buckeyes 12 times. Devin Gardner did throw the interception, and it was his fumble on a sack that OSU returned for a defensive TD following Elliott's TD run, but he also threw the ball as well as he has in weeks, completing over 2/3's of his passes for 233 yards and 2 TDs, and spread out the receptions to 9 different players, 10 if you include the throwback pass he caught from Drake Johnson on a pretty brilliant playcall that helped Michigan tie the game at 21 in the 3rd. It wasn't anywhere close to his record-breaking performance from last year, but Gardner acquitted himself well enough in his final game as a Wolverine, and it was a bit poetic that his last completion of his career was a great little throw and catch to Canteen for Michigan's last TD. Of course, the fact it was in a game Michigan wound up losing by 14 takes a bit of luster off the rose, but this is the "happy thoughts" part of this diary.
Drake Johnson had his 3rd really solid performance in 4 games, scoring 2 TDs and would have likely finished with 100 yards had he not been injured in the 3rd quarter. What he does isn't necessarily flashy and I'm not sure if he could hold up to every-down back-type carries for a season, but his one-cut-and-go style meshes well enough with the playcalling, and outside of Green in spurts I'm not sure there has been another back this year who has shown Johnson's consistency these past 4-5 games. In this game, nobody other than Gardner had more than 3 carries, and Norfleet's 10 yards were the most non-QB yards on the ground amongst Hayes, Smith, and Kerridge. Once Johnson went down, so did the rest of the rushing offense.
According to the internet I am to believe that Devin Funchess GAF this game because he caught 7 balls for over 108 yards (only the second time sigh he's done so all year), but it also felt like one of the few times this year Michigan hasn't been afraid to throw downfield a bit and challenge defensive backs. The offensive line gave up 5 sacks, but they tended to come in bunches and, overall, Gardner was able to survey the field and find open receivers reasonably well, especially when the pocket moved with him and bought him some time with his legs. If this is Funchess's last game (and barring some crazy ju-ju by the next head coach or a poor draft report, it is), at least it felt like he had some chances to make plays and fulfill a bit of the promise expected before this broken season took place.
I'd like to say this portends some hope for next year, with only Gardner and (probably) Funchess gone, but I'm not going to fall for that fool's gold again quite yet. Whoever takes over next year will find an offense capable of playing a couple of different ways, and even though a big part of me wishes we could have seen a healthy Devin Gardner is a spread-style offense behind an improving line, Morris and co., there's enough talent and ability at the QB position to make me think a repeat of 2008 ThreetSheridanDamnit isn't in the cards.
Good(?): Good Many Cooks in the Backfield
Coming into the season, one of the key questions around these parts was whether or not Michigan had anyone who could matriculate the ball forward without (a) fumbling, (b) exploding, or (c) not following that up with three carries going backwards. Transfer Ty Isaac was going to be redshirt, but after a disastrous 2013 people expected the slew of highly-rated freshmen to mature into competent rushers, especially if the offensive line made some positive strides. For most of the year, it looked like Green was figuring out how to be a semi-effective rusher in college, while Smith would do his phonebooth runs where he fell forward for a couple of yards. Nobody was going to mistake it for past efforts by Hart or Perry, but it was consistently mediocre, which counts as a "win" in my book.
Then Green went down and Smith stumbled getting the lion's share, while guys like Hayes and Norfleet provided change-of-pace but still felt like misshaped pieces in the offensive scheme. All wasn't "lost" because this is 2014 Michigan, so not having a semi-competent rushing attack is WAYYYYYYY down the list of concerns, but given the improved play by the offensive line it was a bit sad it wasn't being put to better effect. And then Drake Johnson had a good day against IU on Homecoming and we all kinda said "good for him" and figured that was it. Two weeks later he was held in check by Northwestern, but that game was played on the M00N and DeVeon Smith had his best game in a Michigan uniform. Since then, Johnson has played really well, and at some point the sample size and opponent arguments disappear and you can begin to (cautiously) get excited about him coming back next year and competing with Green, Isaac, and Smith for meaningful carries.
Johnson isn't as dynamic as Smith or Green can be, and while Isaac looked good at USC during his freshman year who knows what effect the year away from the game will be, especially if he is learning yet another offense that may or may not be similar to the ones he's been exposed to the past 2 years. I do think next year will feature a healthy dose of real Drake Johnson hype, especially if Michigan sticks with a similar blocking and running scheme, as his point-and-shoot running style works really well with zone blocking that was most effective this year. Green was probably the "feature" back this year before he went down, and Isaac should get a good number of carries as he is eased back into the game. So that means the backfield could well be a strength for the team in 2015, which would be great considering Michigan will be breaking in a new QB who, at best, has played 2 meaningful games in his college career.
Of course, there are only so many carries to go around, so I wonder if every rusher will be back next year, but that's a discussion for another day. It still remains a positive uptick for the Michigan rushing offense to put up solid efforts for the better part of the month, and credit should go to the backs and the offensive line for making that a reality.
Worst: Missing Frank Clark
I didn't want to say much last week given what transpired with Clark, but with the end of the season it is hard not to look back at the games against OSU and (in particular) Maryland and not see where his absence had a significant effect on how the defense played. Clark wasn't a top-flight DE, but he was a disruptive force on a line that has lacked punch for most of Hoke's tenure, and more importantly possessed the athleticism to string out the QB-based running plays that killed Michigan against Maryland and are the bread-and-butter of OSU's offense. I don't think he would have made a difference in the overall outcome against OSU, but I absolutely believe him not being available against Maryland cost Michigan that game. Of course, I'm not condoning what happened in that hotel room and absolutely agree with Hoke's decision to dismiss him from the team, but from a football perspective him being gone hurt a Michigan team that could have at least won 6 games.
Best: Defensive Effort
I know I seemed a bit underwhelmed about the defense's performance above, but I absolutely felt like they played as best as they could given just how scary-good OSU's offense can be. Michigan didn't force a turnover or get a gift possession after a bad punt return or fumbled snap like other OSU opponents, so they deserve credit for giving up 35 points the honest way. As noted earlier, they were without Frank Clark, and while early-season J.T. Barrett might have been susceptible to weird blitzing patterns or different alignments, by this time in the season Barrett was just another Heisman trophy-caliber QB coming off the Meyer assembly line. And OSU's offense is designed to pick away at your weaknesses, like they did against MSU, like they did for stretches against PSU, and like they've done to great effect to everyone else this season save VT. So while it is clear the corners aren't as talented as we all hoped coming into the year, and the linebackers struggled at times in coverage, and the run defense benefitted immensely from missing teams like Wisconsin and Nebraska, it was still a unit that "came to play" every week, as cliche as that is, and one a different team is probably good enough to win you 9-10 games. And with only a couple of key contributors leaving (Ryan, Beyer, Taylor, Clark), it feels like a unit that the next coach should be able to meld pretty quickly.
Meh: Flightracker 2015!
If you want a full recap of the coaching search and the key players involved, check the various diaries from alum96, Eye of the Tiger, and others, along with the front-page posts by Brian and the staff. They have fantastic takes on the candidates, and I have nothing substantive to add in terms of names.
To steal a line from Brian, I don't know man. Everyone and his mom at Michigan are calling for Jim Harbaugh; the 49ers have obliged by all but packing Jim's bags for him and called for an Uber headed to the airport. Barring a run to the Super Bowl, I don't see a world in which Harbaugh is coaching in San Francisco next year, and even if they win out I could see both sides cutting ties at their highest point. And by all accounts, he's interested in coming to Michigan, with those insider-y comments like "he feels like he might do better in college" and the usual platitudes about wanting to come back to his alma mater. So the tracks are absolutely greased for Harbaugh to ride into town and save the day.
Now, I know I speak for the minority, but I'm not in love with the prospect of Harbaugh being the next head coach. This isn't because I want to be a contrarian, or because I want to start a debate. Objectively, Harbaugh is the best option for Michigan if the goal is winning quickly and (hopefully) voluminously while apeasing the most fans. He had good success in college at Stanford, and though it was brief he absolutely showed an acumen recruiting top players to a down program. He then went to the pros and had one of the most successful runs any new coach has ever experienced, winning 36 games in 3 years and going to at least the conference final every year. He's young enough to stick around, and his ties to the University are unparalleled amongst the available options. Plus, it would be fun to finally have a coach who would absolutely call Mark Dantonio out on being an a-hole and, well, we can only dream about that first post-game handshake. And yet, there remain reasons why I really, truly wish Michigan would look somewhere else for their next coach.
First off, what I dislike about Harbaugh as a head coach is what he symbolizes. Michigan got itself into this near-decade of sub-mediocrity because it doggedly holds onto the past, pulling off their best Notre Dame "echos of the past" by talking about how good they were years ago and how they just need to get back to playing football the "Michigan Way." This mentality is obviously not shared by all Michigan fans, but there is this contingent that has been chasing ghosts since Bo left, and it has colored their worldview to such an extent that anyone who doesn't subscribe to that notion of Wolverine football is shouted down for "ignoring history" or recognize true greatness. And yes, I believe Bo was a great coach for Michigan when he was there, and he absolutely helped revive a faltering program and bring them back to national prominence. But he's also a guy who has 1 more Rose Bowl win than Mark Dantonio and the same number as John Cooper, whose teams always seemed a step below elite (save for your outlier year here or there), and whose memory exceeded his accomplishments around the time Carr left and the first "outsider" was let into his Hall. Harbaugh has such a strong connection to Bo, to an era when Michigan could just be "Michigan" and that was enough to win most games, and I don't believe it is possible for Michigan, or really any program, to go back to that. So through no fault of his own, his existence feels a bit like the "break glass to stop time" emergency release that will further keep Michigan a step behind other national powers that don't seem afraid to break with tradition and the withered alumni tree.
Now, I don't think Harbaugh would try to recreate 1980's Michigan football, but at the same time what we've seen from him in college has been schemes that wouldn't be out of place decades ago. Stanford was a run-heavy outfit with a pretty basic defense that beat you by forcing you to grind down the field; it worked because Harbaugh is a good coach and his teams were smart, heady outfits that played within their limitations. But the dirty little secret about 2009/2010 in the Pac-10 is that they were pretty terrible years for the conference. Stanford and Oregon finished #4 and #3, respectively, in 2010, but the next best team was 8-5 USC coached by Lane Kiffin, and Oregon ran Stanford off the field when they played them. In 2009 Stanford got on the national map when the upset Oregon, but that wasn't a banner year for the conference either, with Oregon winning the league at 10-3 and Pete Carroll's last USC team limping to a 9-4 finish with sanctions looming. That isn't to outright dismiss Harbaugh's accomplishments because winning at Stanford is incredibly tough and his teams were trending upward, but at least some of that success should be attributed to playing some pretty weak competition, probably even weaker than what he'd see in the B1G his first year.
What we've seen nationally is that unless you have overwhelming talent, which Michigan doesn't have, the best teams employ offensive and defensive systems that attack your weaknesses dynamically and aren't afraid to fight left-handed if it makes sense. It's how OSU turned a redshirt freshman into a record-breaking QB, or how Auburn drops 600 yards on Alabama (in a losing effort, yes), or how Rich Rodriguez is playing for the Pac-12 title in his third season at Arizona. Maybe Harbaugh learned more coaching Kapernick and having to adapt to his playing style, so this could be a false concern. But at the same time, it is reasonable to wonder if the best version of Stanford is the ceiling Michigan is looking at. That might win them a bunch of games in this conference, but it will still put them behind OSU more times than not, and nationally I'm not sure that gets Michigan any closer to being nationally relevant year-by-year.
But beyond that concern of hoping for past glories, the other key reason I'm down on Michigan going for Harbaugh is that I don't think he's coming here, or that he'd stick around all that long if he did. Like I said earlier, he's had a near-unprecedented run of success while at SF, and his name is already being thrown around for spots in NY, Cleveland, Atlanta, etc. This isn't Nick Saban finishing under .500 in his two years in Miami, or Spurrier spectacularly flaming out in Washington and running back to college and its noon tee times. Harbaugh isn't likely done with the NFL, and if he has some early success at UM that siren song is only going to get louder. You may say "that's great, it means he'll win now and set Michigan back on the national map", but I could see that being a bit of a distraction and having a negative effect on recruiting. Furthermore, and this is absolutely a personal take with no basis in provable fact, but I'm not sold Harbaugh views Michigan the way other people think he views Michigan. This was the guy who took shots at the education, at the way the program was run once he was a head coach and recruiting against them, and he's not said or done anything since then to make me believe his view of Michigan has changed demonstrably. We all laugh now at Brady Hoke for saying "This is Michigan, fergodsakes" because he failed to back up his love with results on the field, but there is something to be said for a guy who wants to stay and create a legacy at your school. Harbaugh would absolutely be positive about Michigan while he is there, but I also think he'd be looking around at other opportunities when appropriate. I'm not sure if "cold-eyed focus" and cutthroat calculus are good or bad traits, but Harbaugh has them in spades.
So I guess that's why I'd love for Michigan to look at younger options, guys who would jump at the opportunity to coach at Michigan for decades and turn it into their own instead of a guy who is sorta, kinda being pushed out for political reasons in the NFL and might land back at Michigan because it is the best option at the time. The more I see and hear about guys like Herman at OSU, Frost at Oregon, or Aranda at Wisconsin the more I'd like a younger coordinator who has "apprenticed" under a top-flight coach and who seems poised to take over a program. I know people say Michigan doesn't need to take chances on coaches, but Gus Malzahn had one season of HC experience at Arkansas St. before he took over at Auburn and turned that program around immediately, and guys like Bob Stoops and Chip Kelly got their first HC chances at programs where they flourished almost immediately. Age is just a number, and getting a guy with "head coaching experience" instead of "a clue" is what led us down the Hoke wormhole. "Michigan" does a fair bit of recruiting for you, and a young guy coming in will undoubtedly keep around the pieces from the current regime that work and won't be afraid to upset the apple cart a bit where necessary. Who knows if any of these guys will turn out to be great HCs, but taking a risk on an unknown with upside sure beats out the alternative of Miles or retreads that seems to be option B if/when Harbaugh takes a hard pass.
I commend you for reading this far, so I'll end this here. I want Michigan to win, to get back to being the type of program that deserved to be called a "Leader and Best" on the football field. And maybe Harbaugh is the perfect compliment of old-world charm and new-world winning. But what I fear is that the powers in control of the decision are going into it with blinders on, and for a school that has so many innovative elements it would be depressing to see them not explore every option out there.
Best: The End
Finally, my Saturday nights/Sundays are free! I want to thank everyone who reads and comments on these diaries, and for putting up with my rants and long-winded explanations. I've enjoyed trying to bring a bit of levity to this season, and look forward to 2015 when Shane Morris and Drake Johnson ride Harbaugh mania to the Rose Bowl!
I contemplated not even writing this edition of the diary. Next week’s game is going to have way more meaning in terms of the end of a season, of a coaching staff, maybe of an era in Michigan football. This was just one of many infuriating games played by Michigan in recent years, and distinguishing it from, say, Iowa or Nebraska last year is mostly in the eye of beholder.
Worst: Of Pigs and Lipstick
Ever since Michigan beat PSU and then started winning consecutive games for the first time this season (sigh), there was a growing contingent of Michigan fans who started to argue that if Brady Hoke finished the season “strong” (typically with a win at OSU, though a close loss in the same vein as last year might suffice), culminating in a bowl win on or before Christmas, his services should be retained as head coach for next year.
The reasoning seemed to be three-fold: (1) there was no promise that Michigan would snag a top-flight replacement for Hoke (especially if a Harbaugh wasn’t in play), so why perform a lateral move (2) knowing very little about Hackett and Schlissel except that the former is a “Brandon guy” and the latter isn’t much for sports, did it make sense to entrust them with such a major decision on a compressed timeframe, and (3) 7/8 wins (including an upset of a major rival) were seen as some progress by the team and the staff, especially given the dearth of seniors on the team, and recruiting might pick up again with some certainty about the staff returning. I might be missing some other tertiary arguments, but the gist seemed to be that unless Michigan could get a slam-dunk replacement, it didn’t make sense to go through another rebuilding with an imperfect selection.
But the core of this argument was premised on the idea that Michigan would be showing meaningful improvement, and that’s the rub with this recent upswing: the team has played, and the staff has coached, just as shoddily as it had during the losses, only that the opposition somehow found ways to play even worse. Earlier this year, Devin Funchess said that wins and losses are just a “statistic”, in a way restating the maxim that if you perform consistently and steadily improve, the wins will follow in the long term, even if in the short term you might lose a game or two due to the vagaries of life and the sport. Well, the thing is that telling the difference between “bad luck” and “poor coaching” may be somewhat subjective, but if you keep having to divine the difference that is probably telling you something about the team.
Yes, there have been meager signs (mostly on defense, but also with the offensive line) that this program was playing better, especially given the fact that Indiana has since nearly upset PSU and held tough against OSU on the road, while Northwestern upset Notre Dame and then demolished Purdue to, improbably, set up for next week’s intra-state battle with the Illini as a battle of two teams playing for their bowl-game lives. They weren’t dominating wins, but if you squinted you could see something faintly resembling progress and improvement, and maybe with a new QB and some healthy running backs next year Michigan might be on its way “back”.
But all along, this team kept displaying the same numerous flaws that absolutely, positively shouldn’t be happening 50 games into a coach’s tenure. The offense remains painfully predictable, to the point that pointing this out is equally reflexive. The defense, while certainly the stronger unit during Hoke’s tenure, continues to play at a B+ level, seemingly never figuring out how to handle anything approaching tempo or a mobile QB. Barring a Biakabutuka-esque performance against OSU, Michigan won’t have a running back break 600 yards total on the season, and for the second year in a row won’t have one even sniff 1,000 yards total. Hell, Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman are going to significantly outrush this team as a whole, and that’s after dropping 292 yards rushing on Maryland in this game. Devin Gardner went from pre-season All Big-10-ish player to a guy who’ll probably not throw for 10 TDs on the season, and one of the best runs of the year was a 52-yard run by a FB on a fake punt. Timeouts continue to be called or saved without any regard for reality, and the team long ago ran out of feet to shoot with dumb penalties, incorrect number of players on the field, and turnovers. Oh my gawd the turnovers, King.
This game had all of those failings on display live and in technicolor, so even if Michigan had somehow pulled off the win and gotten bowl eligible, there’s nothing resembling real, sustainable progress by this staff and how that has translated to the team. A couple of ugly wins and the renewed potential for the team to scratch out bowl eligibility might have spackled over these cracks slightly, but this program remains a fundamentally flawed organization with a staff that seems unable to implement an holistic philosophy, or really any set of standards, necessary to win consistently. That 11-2 season always felt like an aberration, but even moreso after watching this program devolve for the past 3 seasons. It’s been an ugly downfall, and with this loss I have to think the end is near.
Best: Keeping ‘Em Clean
Another week, another strong performance by the offensive line. As noted above, Michigan put up 292 yards against Maryland on only 45 caries, which works out to a nice 6.5 ypc. Of course, 52 of those yards came on Kerridge’s run in the first quarter, but even excising that you are still looking at 5.5 ypc. Furthermore, TFLs were held to a minimum (6 total), with only 2 sacks allowed and Gardner seemingly being given ample running lanes to escape the pocket if necessary. Gardner had his best game this season by far running the ball, averaging nearly 6 yards a carry and breaking out a couple of nice stutter-steps on Michigan’s lone TD drive. Pass blocking held up, and though Gardner’s numbers were, again, pretty abysmal, they were not due to excessive pressure or a shrinking pocket. So that’s nice, I guess.
The line is far from perfect, but it has displayed the type of gradual improvement you expect from young players getting accustomed to each other. It lacks the certifiable NFL-quality stars we saw last year with Lewan and Schofield, but everyone should be back next year and there is solid depth behind them, so the next coaching staff will have more pieces to work with than Hoke had when he took over.
What is a bit sad is that had Gardner had this level of protection last year, I’m not sure the broken shell of a man we’ve seen this year exists. He’d still make some bad decisions, but you can see him flinch and lose focus when the pocket even gets compressed slightly, and that seemingly is due in part to being under constant duress last year behind whatever that was in front of him in 2013. Al Borges seemingly did him few favors these past couple of years in terms of coaching and development, but as we’ve seen this year at Penn State, any QB working under the constant threat of helmetical annihilation is going to play poorly. It also gives me small hope that next year, Morris and the cadre of running backs will perform reasonably well when not matched up against the MSU’s of the world.
Best: Going Out With a Bang
If this was Brady Hoke’s last home game as a Michigan head coach, he at least pulled out all the stops in trying to win it. The fake punt was a great call, particularly given the fact Michigan was going for it on the previous 4th-and-1 before Smith’s false-start penalty drove them back 5 yards. This being 2014 and Michigan being what they are, they settled for a FG attempt that was then blocked but ricocheted in, but at least it was an early attempt to “manufacture” points in a game that turned out to be a slog.
I also thought Michigan’s decision to go for it on the two other 4th-down plays were the right calls, particularly the 4th-and-6 in the third quarter that might have warranted a penalty call. And I suspect that had Michigan not given up an 11-yard sack on 3rd down from Maryland’s 5 yard line, they probably would have gone for the TD at that juncture as well. At his best, Brady Hoke has always been a bit of a gambler, though he’s seemingly been less so this season. Though it didn’t turn out to matter, it was at least refreshing to see him go back to those ways in this game.
Worst: Not Every Atomic Dog Has His Day
All season it felt like Dennis Norfleet was one block, one crease away from taking a punt back for a score. So there Michigan was, having recently taken the lead on Gardner’s nifty rushing TD and forced Maryland to punt. The ball seemingly bounced harmlessly in front of Norfleet, and he seemed content to let the Terrapins down it. Then, with a little shimmy, he picked the ball up on the bounce, jetted past a couple of flat-footed defenders, and shot past the punter for a TD and some much-needed breathing room. It would be the play that broke Maryland’s back and help secure Michigan’s win.
But of course, that isn’t the fairy-tale ending to this game because this is 2014 and Michigan football has apparently done a Freaky Friday-style switch with mid-2000 MSU. No, instead Michigan gets called for a dubious block-in-the-back penalty (seriously, it was basically a one-handed semi-shove on a guy barely on the screen), and gets booted off the field on 4th down. Maryland then ties the game on the next drive and goes on to win.
Norfleet will be a senior next year and (hopefully) will have a moment to shine, but this reversal was backbreaking in more ways than one.
Worst: When There Isn’t Anything Else to Say
Man, I want to have a fresh take on Devin Gardner, but I’m not sure there is one anymore. He barely threw for 100 yards, completed a shade over 50% of his throws, threw a tipped INT, and either threw just ahead/behind his receivers a half-dozen times or hit them right in the numbers just to see the ball get dropped. It was a sad Senior Day but also a bit fitting given the year he’s had thus far. It just stuns me that this Devin Gardner’s first home game as a starter was highlighted by this sequence:
And his final game in Ann Arbor didn't feature a completion longer than 23 yards, which practically qualifies as airing it out in this offense. Let’s just move on.
Worst: Catch the Damn Ball
What started off as basically Iowa last year has become a bit of an epidemic, especially recently with Devin Funchess. There were absolutely a couple of balls that were too far ahead/behind him to be considered catchable, but for the umpteenth game this year Funchess dropped a couple of very catchable balls that could have extended drives or bailed out his QB. I won’t recount every instance because, well, I still have a shred of humanity I’m trying to hold onto and I’m not inclined to rag on college kids too much, but suffice it to say that there were balls a purported first-rounder should have caught, and coupled with the anemic play-calling (we need to stop expecting the coaches to try to exploit any size advantages they may have with Funchess because if they aren’t going to throw a f*cking jump ball over a 5’ 7” guy, it ain’t going to happen ever), it’s been the opposite of the breakout year people expected.
The rest of the WRs continue to be uninspiring, with Canteen dropping a TD and nobody getting separation against one of the many “meh” secondaries in the conference. I’m sure there will be improvement next year, but you got me stumped from where given what we’ve seen this year.
I wish I could divine something greater here, but it was another okay performance that started off great but then faltered as the game progressed. Michigan largely held Maryland in check in the first half, with a trio of FGs to show for their efforts, including one a short field following Gardner’s INT. But in the second half, C. J. Brown just kept running the ball and Michigan consistently gave up the edge, and when Michigan tried to compensate he found receivers wide open for first downs. Michigan seemed to have no counter to the most predictable playcalls in the world, and yet they were a questionable spot on a 3rd down and a busted coverage by Raymon Taylor away from keeping the game tied at the end.
Bolden and Ryan were everywhere, and even without Clark in the lineup Michigan was able to get some pressure on Brown and slow down the running game for long stretches of the first half. Maryland didn’t try to throw the ball much until late in the game, but Lewis seemed to be in decent coverage most of the night and Taylor had that one bust on a fake WR screen but nothing else that felt egregious. Lewis’s big snafu was the running-into-the-kicker penalty that led to Maryland’s game-tying TD. Now, I’m not sure if the coaches told Lewis to go for the block or he called that on his own, but the risk-reward for blocking a chip-shot FG attempt by one of the best kickers in the country seemed pretty high against, and it turned as 4-point Michigan lead into a tied game. But given all of the bad decisions this year, it’s hard for me to drag up much more bile.
It’s a solid unit with inconsistent performances, coached by knowledgeable guys who seem unable to deal with a mobile QB or anyone who doesn’t respect the sanctity of the play clock. Again, the next staff will find a lot of talent in the cupboard; hopefully they’ll get more out of it.
Worst: Rivalry Week
Being a Michigan fan means I’ll be rooting for them to beat OSU, but as a human being who watches football, I don’t really see a way this isn’t doesn’t get ugly. OSU isn’t a great team, and I think they’re much closer to the squad that struggled against PSU, Minny, and IU in recent weeks than the one that obliterated MSU a couple of weeks ago. But they absolutely have the type of offense that can carve up Michigan, and no performance this year gives me any hope that Gardner and co. will be able to recreate last year’s fireworks. It’ll be close for a bit because it’s a rivalry game, but it will be a miracle if Michigan can escape Columbus with a win.
I will say, and not that the team should or would care, but I kinda hope the seemingly-annual pre-game fight at midfield doesn’t happen this year. The last team this 5-6 squad needs is a meaningless “tough guy” stomping on the midfield logo or whatever usually sets this stuff off. I’m sure it will happen, but when you’ve only beaten OSU 3 times since Y2K, it might be time to try something new.
This is going to be a short diary, with more a focus on college football generally than Michigan football’s last two weeks of the regular season. I say this every time, but I mean it. Also, please make sure to read my comment regarding Frank Clark and what has come out in the past couple of hours.
Best: A Michigan-free Football Saturday
Virtually everyone here is a diehard Michigan fan; I kinda doubt you’d be posting and reading this blog if you weren’t. But it should come as no surprise to many that watching this version of Michigan football the past couple of years is not an overly-entertaining affair.
So I’ve come to enjoy watching football on bye weeks because I can just enjoy football for what it is, with no real rooting interest or aneurysm-inducing reactions to what’s going on during the game. I can watch Miss. St. vs. Alabama, OSU vs. Minny, or FSU vs. Miami and just enjoy watching other teams without having to be overly critical of What It Means or The Future of the guys on the sidelines. Plus, I got to see Notre Dame blow a game to Northwestern (!) and Auburn get waxed by Georgia and get a bit of revenge for that insanity last year.
Best: Seriously, Irish?
You get down with your bad self, Pat!
Nothing is more fun than seeing ND lose due to their own hubris, and a piece of me is happy to one-half of M00N get a little bit of a gift.
Worst: Smart football?
So this conference really does suck at football.
Okay, take a step back.
This conference sucks at smart football compared to the rest of the country.
Minnesota and OSU was amazing in so many ways, from the two turnovers by Jalin Marshall (one on a probable score and another on a muffed punt that set up a Minny TD), to the worst onside kick I’ve seen in a long time (the Minnesota kicker both kicked it softly AND directly at the OSU hands guy), to Mitch Leidner going 7/19 for 85 yards and 2 INTs, 36 of those yards on one completion to Maxx Williams. But at least those are football-type events; Cole Stoudt completed 3 passes to Clemson players and 3 to Georgia Tech DBs, and two of these were returned for TDs.
No, what was amazing was Jerry Kill deciding late in the 4th quarter, deep in OSU territory and on 2nd down, to kick a 34-yard-field goal while being down 10.
Obviously, you need the FG and the TD, and on 4th down I absolutely understand taking the points versus going for a TD. But he had a bit over a minute left, and while he had no timeouts (which he used to slow down OSU’s previous drive), there was little danger in at least trying to throw to the endzone once or twice. You need that TD at some point, and passing from the 17 at least gives you some options; trying to throw from the 40 (or wherever they’d be on a successful onside) with under a minute wasn’t going to be any easier. And while Minny’s kicker had missed earlier, it was a 50-yarder doinked off an upright with more than enough distance. Instead, the Gophers ran up, spiked the ball, then trotted out the FG kicker for a chipshot and then failed to recover the onside kick. It was baffling enough for the announcers to question it as it occurred, and is even more inexplicable in retrospect.
I hate picking on Kill because he is a good coach who has helped Minnesota recover from the dregs to be a decent mid-level conference program, and his medical condition is obviously quite draining and it is a testament to him that he is performing as well as he is. That said, this was a crazy end to a game that probably shouldn’t have been that close anyway.
Best: Running Back ConfUrence?
I know PSU is known as Linebacker U (yes, and for other things). But for all the crap that the conference gets for being less innovative than others, but what it does have is the most complete and impressive collection of running backs in the country, with 4 in the top 10 nationally, including the top 2 spots.
Melvin Gordon broke LaDainian Tomlinson’s FBS record for rushing yards with 408 yards on 25 carries (!), which I’m not sure I could pull off playing NCAA Football 2014 on easy mode against Southern Directional State U. And Nebraska is no slouch defensively; they were comfortably in the top-25 defenses by FEI coming into the game, and were only giving up 3.7 yards per carry. By comparison, Tomlinson put up his yardage against Texas-El Paso on 43 carries(!). Wiscy has had some great backs in its history, but Gordon seems otherworldy right now, and for once I’m happy that the weird scheduling quirks at the conference kept him off the schedule.
On the other side of the field, Abdullah struggled running the ball, especially once Wisconsin started to pull away, but any other year he’d be in the conversation for best back in the conference despite being injured the past couple of weeks. Befitting the tire fire that has been Indiana this year in conference, Tevin Coleman put up over 300 yards running the ball and still finished over 100 yards behind the day’s leader while IU lost by 22. Similarly, David Cobb has been a major force behind Minnesota’s renaissance this year, and yet I’m not sure most people realize he’s the eighth-leading rusher in the country. And you have guys like Langford at MSU and Elliott and OSU putting up really good numbers as well.Gordon and Coleman could return next year, though I wouldn’t hold me breath on either.
As a Michigan fan it is obviously distressing to see so much talent at the running back position seemingly everywhere else except in Ann Arbor. I don’t know much about Fred Jackson and his coaching style, but it is clear that there is talent in the region and Michigan is either (a) whiffing horribly, or (b) failing to develop it into competent on-field performers. Still, it’s been fun watching these guys play so well, and I’m going to try to enjoy it because I’m not sure we’ll see this concentration of talent anytime soon.
Worst: M.C. SECher
Michigan was never going to sniff the college playoff this year, and as soon as Oregon trounced MSU and OSU got blitzed by VT nobody in the conference stood much of a change of competing for a spot; I guess OSU has a slight chance if they win out and a bunch of teams ahead of them lose, but that seems unlikely. Not only is my team not involved in this first year, but the two teams that are my mortal enemies are most-likely out, so hate-watching isn’t on the table either. So instead, I’ve been watching the past couple of weeks play out nationally with about as much detachment as one person can have for the sport.
So this weekend #4 Alabama beat #1 Mississippi State at home, #15 Georgia blitzed #9 Auburn at home by 27, #24 Texas A&M lost at home to a Mizzou team that lost to Indiana at home and probably won’t finish the year with a win against a ranked team, and #17 LSU was shut out by 5-5 Arkansas a week after nearly upsetting now-#1 Alabama. This came a week after A&M upset Auburn on the road.
Now, on the surface these results should be exciting; highly-ranked teams playing each other in important games are what college football is supposed to be all about. Well, that and money. Lots and lots of money. Oh yeah, and maybe education.
But as has been the case all year, it feels like a shell game is going on in the SEC and the media (read: ESPN) is all too happy to keep it going for the watching public. This year has seen an unprecedented number of SEC teams ranked, and in a down year for college football some of the best teams do reside in the Southeast. But these rankings have become more and more dubious as the year has gone on and we realize that teams like LSU, Auburn, and A&M aren’t sleeping giants but instead deeply-flawed outfits with inconsistent performances.
The problem is that because the perception remains that the SEC is the dominant football conference by leaps and bounds, you have this weird feedback loop wherein everyone has “good” wins and “good” losses because everyone is ranked, even though objectively they probably shouldn’t be. I know the fashionable term is SEC bias, but it isn’t even that; it’s just laziness and an inability to look beyond the numbers next to the logo.
LSU has two wins against ranked teams on their schedule – 28-24 against Wisconsin to open the year wherein the Badgers forgot to give the ball to Melvin Gordon at halftime and let LSU score 21 points, and a 10-7 fugly win against Ole Miss that had “drama” the same way a couple of drunk housewives throwing crap at each other on a Bravo show have “character development.” And yet, they were #17 in the country going into the weekend because they had losses to highly-ranked Auburn, Mississippi State, and Alabama, who themselves benefited from “good” wins against the usually-ranked Tigers.
Miss. State was #1 in the country before this weekend because they beat 4-loss LSU, 3-loss Auburn, and 4-loss A&M. Since then, they struggled to beat Arkansas and had a meh performance against Kentucky, but are still in the playoff hunt and will basically play an elimination game against Ole Miss to end the year, a team that had an okay win against Boise St. to open the year (don’t be fooled by that 35-13 score; it was an ugly game until well into the 4th quarter), a legit good win against Alabama, a victory over that same A&M team, and “good” losses to LSU and Auburn.
All of these teams are basically trading off wins; you go up and your opponent goes down, and next week you’ll trade places again. People call it “competitive balance” and that has some merit, but at some point balance becomes mediocrity, and I’m starting to think that is the case for the SEC this year. There are no dominant teams in the country; FSU is a paper tiger at #1 given how they’ve looked for weeks now, and the Pac-12 and Big-12 keeping get in each other’s way. So I get that the SEC feels like a safe bet because of their recent dominance. But actually watching these games, it feels like this year is the worst type of one for the new playoff format. Nobody really deserves to be #3 or #4, and if this was a skins game in golf you’d almost rather they roll over the 2 spots to next year when, maybe, there would be more deserving candidates. But what I do know is that barring a major immolation by a couple of teams, the SEC will probably get a 2-loss team into the playoff because of musical chairs in the polls, not because of any amazing evidence on the field.
Worst: F*cking Ohio
[Note: This report about Clark’s situation came out as I wrote this entry. Based on the details included therein, this is a bad situation for all involved and, if true, should lead to Clark’s immediate dismissal from the team. I’m leaving in my thoughts here because I feel the themes remain true.]
So I don’t know what happened to Frank Clark this weekend; seems like nobody does beyond the basics. He was arrested in Ohio for a misdemeanor domestic violence offense. It’s the most serious misdemeanor offense charge, but the heaviest penalty is up to 6 months in jail and up to $1,000 in fines. I’m still a registered attorney in Michigan as well New York state, but I never practiced in this area of law and have no experience in Ohio, so I’m not able to comment on the overall seriousness of the charges. But what I do know is that Frank Clark did something significant enough that police were called, he was arrested and charged, and (to my knowledge) is awaiting a bail hearing/bond posting. I’m sure there are threads out there in the ether where people claim to know more, but until I see something more credible than boojack321_UMSUX, I’m not going to take those claims with much salt.
It doesn’t surprise me that people have overreacted and started to concoct their own narratives regarding what happened this weekend; this is of course the internet, and the Michigan fanbase is as neurotic and reactionary as any others. I’ve read people calling for restraint until we hear more, others claim this is yet more proof that Hoke has lost this team, and (sadly) a number of people denigrating Frank Clark and distancing themselves from his association with Michigan. I remain steadfast in the insane belief that we don’t know enough to pass any judgment one way or another, but I’m also a philistine.
In no way should this be taken as some greater indictment of Hoke or the program; Frank Clark's actions on a bye week, miles away from campus, are his own alone. This is not Hoke's fault, nor the school's, nor anyone else's; these are the actions, whatever they are, of a single person, and in no way should be try to read more into them than that.
By this time tomorrow we should know much more about what happened and proper Internet Justice will be handed down, but it is safe to assume that Clark won’t be suiting up this weekend barring an extremely rare reversal of the legal process, and I’m guessing his final game may well have been against Northwestern. If so, it will be a sad coda to a career at Michigan that has been marked with some ignominy (the laptop incident) as well as flashes of brilliance on the field.
Obviously I hope justice is served, and that once all of the facts come out the proper resolution is achieved. That said, and I know I’m just spitting in the wind by this point, but I hope the UM community pumps the brakes a bit on the crucifixion until we know more.
So Michigan beat Hillsdale comfortably after some early-game jitters. The offense looks pretty good, and the defense has its issues with so much inexperience in the front court but it can absolutely turn it on in spurts.
I thought Walton looked great running the offense, and Caris messed around and nearly got a triple-double for his efforts. The freshmen looked like freshmen, but you can see the potential there. In particular, I thought Dawkins looked really explosive out there in his limited minutes, and should be a nice second-team scoring and energy option.
It’s early, but it was nice to watch a Michigan team take care of business and look fun and interesting while they did so.
Best: Two More Weeks!
Like most people, I’m ready for this season to end. The Clark situation is one last kick in the balls, but it should be over soon. As I said last week, I’m not excited about UM to make a bowl game if they do, but whatever, I’ll still be hoping they pull off the win against Maryland and get to 6 wins. But this year could not end any sooner.