now I'm sad.
Reading the Tea Leaves, 2013 Midseason Edition
Remember when, before the season began, I read some tea leaves and used this ranking of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series as a metaphor for the various possible scenarios? Remember how I predicted we’d win 9 or even 10 games? Those days were awesome, man. Unfortunately, right now we’re staring at one of the most underwhelming 5-1 midseason records I can imagine, highlighted by almost losing to both Akron and UCONN. For the record, Akron and UCONN are now a combined 1-11.
It was bad enough when we were 5-0, but then again, we’d just pasted Minnesota, a not-completely-terrible Big 10 team, so things looked like they were on the up. All we needed was a win over an equally not-completely-terrible Penn State to ensure a bowl game and finally put to rest the notion that 2013 is some sick re-run of 2009.
Things started poorly. Turnovers gifted Penn State with 14 points, as we’ve gifted opposing teams all season. Al Borges continued to call the zone stretch to Toussaint, and as usual, these plays typically went for 0 to -2 yards. But then we opened things up. Gardner threw. He ran. He did not turn the ball over.
Yet, for some reason, with us up 10 and less than 2 minutes left to play, the wheels came off and Borges returned to…the stuff that didn’t work in the first half. Now, running a zone stretch or inside power in overtime when all you need is an FG would already be a Captain Obvious call if you had Mike Hart and were averaging 4-5 yards per carry. But it simply doesn’t make any sense whatsoever when you’re up, you’re in one of the loudest, most difficult stadiums to play in, you have a chance to win and yet you know that your kicker is having an off day and--crucially--your running backs are averaging under a yard per carry. On the other side of the equation, on both PSU’s final regulation TD drive and the winning drive in overtime, Mattison dialed up a few too many soft cover 2s against a team that passes pretty well when they protect the quarterback, but terrible when they don’t. Hoke, Borges and, yes, even Mattison played not-to-lose and guess what? We lost.
Now, as an aside, can we please bury the notion that this result had anything to do with inherent superiority of offensive scheme or philosophy? We didn’t lose because “MANBALL” (i.e. i-formations, power running, play-action and so forth) is inherently worse than “basketball on grass.” (i.e. shotgun spread formations, read-option running, constraint passing and so forth). We lost because our coaches called plays we don’t have the personnel for, then called them again and again when it should have been clear that we couldn’t execute them. Wisconsin, Stanford and Alabama can. We cannot. It’s that simple.
The question now is: where does this leave us? And the answer is still somewhere between 2009 and 2011, but the center point in that distribution has shifted downwards towards 2010. I’ll go through each remaining game one-by-one and tell you what I think our chances are.
The Remaining Games
1. Home vs. Indiana: .67 probability of winning
They have offense but not much defense. We have Charlie Sheen on offense and soft cuddly zone on defense. But Ryan and Lewan should be back full-time, we’re at home and we can actually be aggressive on both sides of the ball, so the question really is whether we will. If we are, we win. If we’re not, we don’t.
2. Away vs. Michigan State: .40 probability of winning
East Lansing is not a happy place for us, especially in the Mark Dantonio era. And Sparty’s defense is as good as ever. That’s bad. On the other hand, they are not a good offensive team. That’s good. But their offense is getting better and they like to throw to tight ends. That’s bad. Expect a close one, but don’t expect a win.
3. Home vs. Nebraska: .60 probability of winning
Nebraska is a lot like Indiana, but with a higher national profile. We beat them handily two years ago and were on the road to beating them last year until Denard went down. If Borges stops pretending he has the 2006 offense and just sticks to the plays he has the personnel for, I think we surprise the national folks with a comfortable win here. But that’s a significant “if.”
4. Away vs. Northwestern: .40 probability of winning
At one point I had this as low as .33, but then Northwestern laid that egg against Wisconsin and, well, they just didn’t look all that scary anymore. Mind you, neither do we, it’s away (sort of) and we’ve had issues with spread offenses so far. As I see it, this will all come down to Mattison and the defense he rolls with. High-tempo spread offenses tend to result in death for the soft cover 2, so look for a lot of blitzing. If now, how are we going to keep them under 45?
5. At Iowa Hawkeyes: .67 probability of winning
Before the PSU own goal, I would have picked Iowa as the most likely candidate for “loss we didn’t see coming.” I can just hope we see it coming this time and don’t get into a Dinoball pissing contest with Kirk Ferentz like we did in 2011, you know, the one we still don’t have the personnel for.
6. Home vs. Ohio: .25 probability of winning
I had this as a tossup at the beginning of the year, in part because I didn’t expect Gardner’s turnoveritis, did expect 3-5 YPC from the running backs and figured we’d keep blitzing because that’s what Mattison does best. We are clearly not the team I expected us to be at this point. On the other hand, Ohio is exactly the team I expected them to be at this point—nationally overrated but coasting through a piss-easy schedule, and clearly the best of this middling bunch we call the Big 10 conference. The game’s at home, which gives us a puncher’s chance, but does anyone seriously see us winning? Seriously? They have tight ends too. And a mobile quarerback. And a defensive line that can get pressure all on its own.
The (Updated) Math
5.00 + 2(.67) + .60 + 2(.40) + .25 = 7.98
Hey that’s…not as bad as expected! On the other hand, we’ve gone from expecting a 9-10 win season to hoping we can salvage 8 wins and thus not look like we’re going backwards. And truth be told, I’m even pessimistic about getting 8, as there isn’t a single game left on the schedule that I’d characterize as “in the bag.” We’ll know a lot more when we see how the coaches and players react to this bit of adversity.
(Updated) Song of Ice and Fire Scenarios
1. A Clash of Kings.
Scenario: Non-stop action and death dealing! Our offensive line grows up quickly, and the move from experience to talent proves fundamental to a revitalized ground game, while Devin Gardner gets enough pass protection to tear up the Big 10’s mostly mediocre defenses. Meanwhile, we hold serve on run defense and even improve against the pass, which is enough to stymie the few good offenses we face. We stare down an invasion from
Stannis Baratheon Urban Meyer and repel him with our wildfire defense and an epic flanking movement passing offense.
Record: 12-0. We run the table and get to the Big 10 Championship Game, where we probably face Ohio for the second time in a week. A BCS bowl is a lock.
P = .05. Essentially, this would be our equivalent of what Notre Dame did last year, and would require a similar amount of luck and collapsing of the once-scary opponents (in our case Ohio and Sparty, in their case Oklahoma and USC). The Clash of Kings scenario is more likely than running the table was in 2012, but still not exactly likely. Ohio is going to be good, and though we can certainly beat them, Sparty is always fired up against us and especially when playing at home. Plus there’s uncertainty tied to the rest of the road games—are we talented, experienced and lucky enough to not blow any of them and still beat all the rivals? Maybe, but probably not. P=.00. ELIMINATED. We don’t have a “revitalized ground game” and our pass defense is terrible.
2. A Storm of Swords
Scenario: We go red wedding on the Big 10 but get caught with our pants down in the toilet at one inopportune moment. Everything else from scenario #1 still applies.
Record: 11-1. We either run the table up to The Game or beat Ohio and lose to one of the other likely candidates. We probably get a Big 10 Championship Game out of it, though that would depend on the others; either way we still get our best regular season since 1997.
P = .15. Okay, now we’re talking plausible-ish! Of course, all the disclaimers for scenario #1 apply here as well, with the caveat that we’re allowed our one bad day. That automatically makes it more likely, as even Alabama has had that over the past two years. Unfortunately, I see too many question marks on the roster to really get behind this scenario: an inexperienced interior O-line, no clear sense of whether we’ll get a pass rush, questions of whether Countess, Fitz and Ryan can return to form after rehabbing from serious injuries, etc. While I do expect these things to turn out well, when the entirety of the season is considered, they may not manifest positively in each and every game. P=.01. Still technically possible, but as Brian likes to say, CUMONG MAN. See above.
3. A Game of Thrones
Scenario: Taut. Gripping. Tantalizing yet never delivering that crucial victory. We are generally awesome, and kick some ass in
the Whispering Wood The Game/Conquest of the Juggalos, but run into a few roadblocks on the way.
Record: 10-2. Likely losses = 1 of Sparty/Ohio and 1 more from your “tossups,” “likely-buts” and ND. Whether we win the Legends Division in its final year depends on whom we lose to and how they do over the course of the season. Just like it did in 2011.
P = .30. Though the rational part of my brain is a bit more conservative, the enthusiastic, emotional fan part feels as if this is the way things will play out. It just keeps repeating “schedule, schedule, the schedule is faaaavorable” until I believe it’s more true than “roster, roster, the roster is inexpeeerienced.” P=.10. This could happen. I mean, it’s not likely, but the whole scenario was predicated on 1 loss against Sparty/Ohio and 1 from the tossup category, which included PSU. A guy can dream, right?
4. A Feast for Crows
Scenario: A mostly enjoyable ride that ultimately doesn’t live up to hopes and expectations.
Record: 9-3. I’d guess this means we lose ¾ out of the “likely-but” and “tossup” games. An early loss to ND (considering we don’t have Ryan and will be working out experience issues on the O-line) is not out of the realm of possibility either.
P = .35. Unfortunately, but not too unfortunately, the math suggests this is the most likely scenario, slightly beating out the more palatable 10-2 (since both of the estimates produce predicted win totals under 10). It would still constitute a bit of progress from 2012, though. That’s good. But it will probably produce a cavalcade of obnoxious “I told you so” columns from everyone’s “favorite” Freep columnist that evince a total disregard for logic and rationality. That’s bad. P=.20. Very much still in the running, but has gone from the center point of the probability distribution to the right slope. We’d have to win all the games we should win (Indiana, Nebraska and Iowa) and one of the ones we’re not in good position for at the moment (Sparty, Northwestern or Ohio). Doable, but remember--we almost lost back-to-back games against Akron and UCONN.
5. A Dance with Dragons
Scenario: Where are we going? Why is this
Quentyn Martell section [insert player] injury rehab taking so long to resolve? Why is this Jon Snow/Danaerys storyline offense so boring and listless?
Record: 8-4 or lower [let’s say 7-5 even though I didn’t do that at the time] Things just don’t go as planned. Maybe that’s due to an injury, or maybe something just doesn’t work on offense and we don’t have Denard to bail us out with his legs.
Last year we went 8-4 in the regular season, having played eventual national champion Alabama (away), eventual runner-up Notre Dame (away), eventual undefeated Ohio (away) and a decent-ish Nebraska team (away) after losing Denard and not, apparently, wanting to put Devin in. The idea that we’ll do the same or worse when there’s no Alabama, a crappier Notre Dame at home, Nebraska at home and Ohio at home strikes me as unlikely. But it isn’t impossible to imagine either, especially considering our lack of depth at key positions cough quarterback cough. P=.50. The offense is boring and listless, unless you count "not knowing if we will run the plays that usually get us yards, or go with the plays that almost always end in TFLs" as excitement. The whole “maybe something just doesn’t work on offense and we don’t have Denard to bail us out with his legs” thing is half right, because Devin does just fine with his legs. Too bad our coaches think we play in Tuscaloosa and have 8 years of oversigned, 4/5 star-rich recruiting classes to work with.
6. George R. R. Martin’s Secret Viserys/Joffrey Slash Fiction
Scenario: It’s 2009 again, yo!
Record: 6-6 or 5-7. We go 1-5 or 0-6 over the last stretch. Someone on the staff gets fired.
Probability: .19. Yes, we have to entertain this possibility now.*
DEPRESSO ADENDUM: If anyone thinks this is unlikely, I suggest you remember what it was like in 2009, when we were 4-2 but had just lost a sqeaker to a pretty good iteration of the Ferentz Hawkeyes. Did you seriously, at any point, entertain the idea that we'd go 1-5 over the second half of the season? Sure, I didn't exactly expect to beat Ohio, Penn State or Wisconsin that year, but wins over fairly crappy Illinois and Purdue teams seemed likely, and it wasn't unimaginable that we might pull of an upset either. I saw us as that transitional 7-5/8-4 Rich Rod team well on the road to 2007 WVU-style domination. You probably did too. In reality we were a 5-7 team on the road to nowhere.
OPTIMISITIC ADENDUM TO THE DEPRESSO ADENDUM: All that said, we did sort of have a horrific defense that was poorly coached at the positional level, overseen by GERG, and meddled with by Rodriguez. I don't see anything like that on our offense, which does seem able to do its job when not shackled by the obstinate insistence that we are another team entirely. So yeah, possible but not that likely.
I don't have quite as rosy a set of win probabilities in my own head as you have here. I see Indy as more like 60%, Nebraska as a toss up, MSU as only about a 33% win chance, and only about a 5-10% shot at beating Ohio. Iowa is the one game where I might be more confident for some strange reason. All in all, though, I'd say we will be fortunate to hit 8-4. 7-5 is now my sad, beaten down, best guess at how it turns out. Funny how shitty that makes me feel because before the season I was predicting 8-4. Then the ND game happened and I got delusions of grandeur despite knowing our O line was likely not very good. So now 8-4 seems pretty horrendous. Plus the way we are winning is much, much shitter than I expected. I expected to lose games well, not win games poorly.
One way to sanity check numbers like these is to convert the probability of winning in the expected spread (or vice versa). Your predictions would be roughly the following:
UM -5 vs. Ind
MSU -5.5 vs. UM
OSU -19 vs. UM
Is that more-or-less what you are expecting?
I remain unimpressed by OSU. They are still better than UM, but this isn't some juggernaut, and I still haven't seen them successfully stop an offense that doesn't shoot itself in the foot. Of course, UM seems more than happy to do that, but if Borges and Gardner can run a competent offense I'm not sold that is anything other than a coin-toss at home.
As I said in the diary, they are only a juggernaut in comparison to the rest of the Big 10. If they end up undefeated and go to the NCG, Alabama or Oregon will curb-stomp them.
We have two major weak spots: the turnovers by Gardner and incompetence in coaching. If these two were completely eliminated, we could still get to 10-2. Unfortunately I just don't see this happening.
So my prediction is we beat Indiana, beat 1 or 2 of Iowa / Northwestern / Nebraska, and lose to MSU and OHIO. A sad version of A Dance with Dragons for sure.
But frankly, after last Saturday's outing, I wouldn't be surprised at all if the team goes 6-6. That would be like, say, George RR Martin deciding to publish The Winds of Winter in 2016? And a 5-7 record... I don't even want to think about that.
I think Indiana is fine maybe mroe towards .75. They have a poor defense and our defense is good enough to hold them to under 30 points. And only Michigan had held Michigan under 40 points this year. So I think 38-28 or 42-31 is very reasonable. MSU I agree with but NW is .5. They have a poor rush D and atleast Gardner should be able to take advantage of it if not Touusaint. And Evanston is not a huge home crowd to shake us up. Nebraska I also agree but the past 3 years they have been the same team. Always lose big games and get blown out on the road. If you get 2 TD's in a row then you have a good chance of winning. So .6 could go down to .4 or up to point .8 in the first Q. Iowa is correct. I mean their rush defense is good and our sucks = another 2 ypc game? We will need Gardner to have a big game in this one, if he shows 2nd half Gardner (PSU game) = win, 1st half Gardner = lose. OSU right now is not looking good, we have the defense and the playmakers on the outside to keep it close, and it OSU i mean come on you know we going to go hard, but if out o-line doesnt improve the only chance we have is defensice td's. The path to Indianaplis is still doable. While no game is a gimme, no game is a definite loss right now. We have the talent to compete, or atleast Gardner/ Gallon/ Funchess/ Defense have the talent to compete with all those teams, but we cant afford to lose the turnover battle in any of those.
I was struck by several things:
I can't even count how many times we ran against 8 (and sometimes 9) man fronts. And all the LBs would just run at the line right at the snap (hard to block guys with momentum). There were even a few plays where we had less players (let alone blockers) than the D had in the box. We were hellbent on running the ball. I can only surmise a few reasons for this:
1) we really didn't respect PSU and after the one final series where we did pass for the last TD to Funchess, we thought it was enough. The rest was just practice to work on blocking and also to reduce the variance in the game.
2) our coaches are so obtuse that we don't even consider what the D is giving us (quick hitch or bubble screen anyone?) For example, when Gallon had his quick screen in the 4th, he picked up 15 and could have gone to the house. They played single coverage all day in response to our "man ball" mentality.
3) Gardner is not accurate enough to throw a good bubble screen or "long hand off."
4) Gardner is too stupid to be trusted with sight adjustments for the long hand off.
I seriously can't imagine 2,3, or 4 (though 3 seems to be the most likely of those options).
As a side bar, does it seem like the team just isn't having much fun out there? It feels like the expectations are so high that anything less than perfection receives a luke warm excitement level - looks more like releif. I think that is weighing on the confidence of the team and impedes the result. It's like a golfer that has the yippes. Sometimes one just has to get a bit angry. I always find that happens when the wound stings a bit.
This team wins the next two games in a row and the board will return to deifying Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison.
Truthfully, if makeable field goals get hit in overtime everyone would just be acting like Akron redux.
This is a young team (truth) in development with the ability to play lights out (ND) or brutal (PSU/Akron/UConn).
We'll find out which version shows up against Indiana.
I still like Brady Hoke a lot, and think he's got us on the right track, long-term. And I think when Al Borges is on, he's a pretty awesome offensive coordinator--those stacked trips formations with Funchess, for example, are confusing the hell out of defenses.
But someone on that coaching staff is insisting that we keep running certain plays far after the point at which it's clear that we can't run them, as if having the right "identity" is more important than getting the most yards possible on a given play. I literally groan everytime I see a zone stretch. This just isn't 2006 and we don't have Mike Hart or that O-line.
Of course, yes, you are right that things could turn around. I think if we hadn't dropped two stinkers against Akron and UCONN, they of the combined 1-11 record, the PSU result would be agonizing but not so alarming.
Because right now I can't discount the possibility that this is 2009 or 2010 all over again.
I don't enjoy my memories of those seasons.
Appreciate the optimism, which I believe is a fairly plausible scenario IF AND ONLY IF we (read: Hoke and particularly Borges) show a willingness to learn from these mistakes (i.e., show some faith in Gardner, stop being so stubborn re: Manball). My confidence level in them being willing/able to adjust: roughly 50/50.
As many others have said, I think we have the talent to beat anyone or lose to anyone on our schedule. I see the coaching as the greatest source of variance in our future, especially right now after such a crushing loss . I have faith that the D will only get stronger, but the offense is losing confidence and could improve or implode.
Bring me the head of Alfredo Borges!