Now that the 2008 football season is mercifully over, many of us are using this blog as a place to vent, analyze, rationalize, and commiserate. I think it helps us through the grieving process. And it's just one more service provided by our kindly proprietor -- thanks, Brian. Since you've provided the space, here goes nothin'....
It's really remarkable that as recently as August 2007, we were throwing the term "national championship" around. Jake and Mike and Chad all came back for their last year... it was gonna be great.... And then the team started and ended badly, and the 2007 season kind of felt like a waste of everybody's time, right up until the exciting bowl victory over Tebow and Urban Meyer redeemed the year and ushered in the era of un-Lloyd-Ball. That bowl win was a bit like an ice cream dessert that makes you forget the unidentifiable things you just ate at an ethnic restaurant.
Then came the whirlwind. RR was hired. Name-calling and allegations and litigation followed. Players were lost through defection and abandonment. The buy-out was settled. On the field, the Spring Game showed us nothing. Summer camp began and ended in a blur of gee-look-at-all-this-new-found-media-access. Puff-piece videos appeared daily on www.mgoblue.com, and it was there, in retrospect, that the first "real" hints of offensive weakness came to light. I remember some of the defensive linemen talking in August, while joking about their new Barwis-ized performance in the weight room, about how the defensive unit largely embraced the thesis (put forth by pundits and fans) that it would have to hold down opponents' scoring to give Michigan a chance in most games. (Note: as of 11/24/08, we're ranked 90th in scoring defense.)
I've been following Michigan football for almost 35 years. I'll write more about that in Part 2 of this essay, but for now I'll just say that everything in my experience told me, after seeing the Utah and Miami games, that this was going to be a losing season. So I was psychologically prepared quite early for what actually transpired (though not as early as some of you were, I'll admit!). It brought back memories of 1984....
Yes, unfortunately, I remembered that Michigan football had once before run the experiment of "what happens if we have no quarterback who is ready to play at the Division 1-A level?" (Substitute "FCS" or whatever stupid name they have now for 1-A.) In 1984 Jim Harbaugh led the Wolverines to a 3-1 start before breaking his arm while trying to dive on a fumble in the MSU game. Chris Zurbrugg was forced into action at QB. Michigan lost that game and went on to defeat only one team with a winning record (Illinois) the rest of the way. A 7-point loss to BYU in the Holiday Bowl gave Bo his only non-winning season record at 6-6, and gave the Cougars the national championship. Harbaugh, of course, healed up and was subsequently a Heisman finalist.
I realize the game isn't exactly the same as it was 24 years ago, and I realize that the QB position was only one of many issues facing the 2008 team, but the 1984 results still serve as an indicator of what might be expected to happen if the only capable quarterback is lost on an otherwise-intact team. The '84 squad went 3-5 in its last 8 games.
Although we didn't know it in August, the 2008 team lacked basic competency not only at QB, but in everything not involving punting or defensive line penetration. (If you want to quibble about placekicking and kick coverage, fine.) Take away Zoltan the Beneficent and the Graham/Jamison sack/TFL machine, and Michigan doesn't crack the top 50 in any other team statistical category. Given that context, it's actually interesting to contemplate how close this team came to matching 1984's 6-6 record. Three more wins would have done it, and I would argue that there were exactly three losses this year where the outcome hinged on a single play:
- Toledo -- missed 26-yd FG attempt at the end (would have gotten into OT at least)
- Purdue -- kill either the fake punt or the hook-and-ladder, and we probably win
- Northwestern -- if Warren's INT return isn't blown dead, it ties the game and changes the momentum
Knowing what we know now, we can say that 6-6 would have been a pretty good achievement for these guys, and whether or not you buy into the theory of single-play differences, all three of the games just mentioned were well within reach.
That actually gives me some hope for 2009. That, and the return of Zoltan and B-Graham (we hope), who represent the two greatest statistical strength areas of 2008. If the team can focus on and address several of its weakest areas, a 6-6 record seems like a very reasonable expectation next year. There are some major areas where I have doubts, based on present and future personnel, about how much progress can be made before next September: QB and O-Line are the two that come to mind first. I can tolerate quite a bit of upheaval and confusion related to the whole new-coaches/new-scheme situation, but there are a few things that really stick in my craw for 2008:
- Turnovers -- 18 fumbles lost, and 12 interceptions?! At Michigan?! Every loss this year went with an even or negative turnover margin. Either the coaches aren't willing to teach basic ball protection techniques, or the players aren't willing to learn them, or else you just have a bunch of young men whose minds are going in so many dozens of different directions that they can't focus on first things first.
- Failure to achieve high tempo. The metric here is the skip-ahead-30-seconds button on the remote control for my DVR. All the emphasis in the late preseason was on conditioning and playing fast in the spread, regardless of the plays being called. Well, I haven't watched the OSU game (and probably won't), but against Northwestern, in the 11th game of the season, the skip-30 button tells me that we were playing significantly slower than the Wildcats through much of the contest. Pressing the button at the end of a Michigan offensive play typically results in the two teams lined up for the next play, with Michigan 3-5 seconds from snapping the ball. Pressing it at the end of a Northwestern offensive play typically results in seeing the next play already in progress, or even finished.
- Poor play up the middle. If you, as an offensive coordinator, could devise a handful of plays that required mobile pass coverage by the linebackers and/or required the safety to make a critical coverage or run-support decision or take a particular angle on the ball, you were largely assured some 50-yard gainers against Michigan's defense. We lack consistent Division-1-A-level play at safety.
- Corners rendered ineffective by "schemes." Notre Dame made our coverage scheme look silly by running a one-receiver deep route. Northwestern defeated it (for their final touchdown) by running a 3-man deep flood. There is something fundamentally wrong when you drop 5 guys into coverage on 3 receivers, and then end up with only the two safeties covering those three receivers 20 yards downfield. Trent and Warren are known to be reasonably capable cover guys. There is no way, given the pressure that the front four were able to bring, that this team should have ended up 81st in passing efficiency defense.
On Special Teams
- Turnovers -- see above. We lack a Div. 1-A kick returner.
The outcome for 2009 will depend on how well the glaring deficiencies can be addressed. Fixing the turnover problem and raising the level of QB play to something like basic Big-Ten competency would probably be sufficient to achieve a .500 record. But we won't be back into championship contention until the additional holes at safety and kick returner are plugged, and critical aspects of the offensive and defensive schemes (such as tempo and pass coverage) are really and truly "installed." Continued improvement on the O-Line is also a requirement.