Best: Go Blue
After the game, one of the ESPN sideline reporters caught up with Devin Gardner and asked him about the game, in particular him playing under macro (his coach likely being fired, the "boycott", the general discontent of the fans) and well as micro pressure (ankle injury, tough PSU defense). After the usual player-speak of "I had to to be out there", "The team still believes in me/each other", "It's good to get the win", and the always-badass "I can hurt later", he talked about looking forward to playing MSU in two weeks and ended the conversation with the most loaded "Go Blue" I can remember.
I don't need to go into the gory details about Gardner's time at UM; you've heard these stories numerous times before, "hot takes" about his failings and odes to his greatness are legion in these parts: He's a winner except when he's throwing crippling INTs or struggling to hold onto the ball under intense pressure, or a maddeningly inconsistent QB who never learned how to play the position due to a revolving-door of disinterested/ill-equipped offensive coaches and whose success typically comes from being a better athlete than the guys chasing him and/or a healthy bit of luck sprinkled with defensive incompetence. He's off-the-charts when it comes to feelingsball and playing hurt, but through 7 games this year he's throwing more INTs (8) than TDs (6), and his team is 3-4 with one semi-competent win. He's everything you want in a QB but with just enough rough edges and blemishes that you can't enjoy it. He can wear whatever hat you want, can both prove and invalidate any argument, and at all times fit into a narrative without being attached to it. Heck, against Miami I called him "Chaotic Neutral", and even now I'm not sure if that should be considered a compliment or a condemnation; it's probably just a statement of fact.
But what I think we all forget about these players are that they are human. Yes, they're "human" in the way that they can hear the boos, maybe feel a little under siege with the tempest engulfing the program, and all the other discussion points we've heard these past couple of weeks regarding the way fans are interacting with the program. But when I say they are "human", I mean they are human in the sense that they are so absolutely too old for this shit and just want to win games and move on to the next challenge. Like everyone reading this blog, at some point in your life every take has been taken, every thing you need to bring has been broughten, and every question has been answered. You are done with it because this is life and you need to move on, and leave the hand-wringing and intense discussions to those on the sidelines.
When Gardner said "Go Blue", he said it like a man who had just endured 3 hours of teeth pulling without Novocain, a QB who played on a bad leg for over a quarter while consistently pulling Mike Hull and the rest of the PSU defense out of his teeth. He was a semi-movable target out there, and PSU took every chance they had to tee him up. It's fashionable around these parts to talk about "soul" dong punches after a bad series or a tough loss, but that's all metaphorical and for effect, as a case of the "grumpies" and drinking a bit too much is pretty self-inflicted. As the announcers reminded us seemingly every free second in the fourth quarter, Gardner finished the OSU game last year with effectively a broken foot, and has endured numerous other undiagnosed/unreleased injuries in his 2+ years as QB1; his soul dong probably hurts after losses, along with his ribs, ankles, shoulders, and every other part of his actual body. He was hurting, but the pain was in service to a goal that was met, so it at least felt validated. It was pain leaving the body for at least a moment, replaced with the healing light of victory.
He also said "Go Blue" with a hint of resignation, or at least an understanding that for as long as he can physically stand, he's the best chance this team has to win this year. We talk about looking toward the future seasons and player development, but that's the perspective born from the one-way relationship of fandom. I'm 33 years old; I'll be a fan of Michigan football until the day I die because the only expiration on my fandom is my beating heart. As fans, we don't get replaced if we don't cheer loud enough, or run out of eligibility after 4 years. We can decide how much we care about the program and the team, and can look to the future secure in the knowledge that while the names on the jerseys will change, our seats in front of the TV or in the stadium won't. But for Gardner, he's got (at best) 6 more games donning the maize and blue, and he's going to do whatever it takes to win each and every one of them, depth chart and future coaching changes be damned. And after seeing guys like Morris and Bellomy struggle immensely to even complete a pass, he's the last line of defense between UM being competitive against the rest of the teams on the schedule and being nothing more than the winningest Baby Seal U in the Big 10.
And finally, that "Go Blue" had the distinctive tone of "F**k You" that usually is reserved for B-Rabbit against Papa Doc. And yeah, it had a bit of the cliche "FU to the doubters/the haters", "nobody believed in us", "how you like dem apples?" that you see in every movie and every NFL Films "mic up" of a defensive player in the huddle. Gardner, more than any other player save maybe Taylor Lewan, has been the lighting-rod for the team's struggles under Hoke, and even though that's part of the deal with being the QB it still must be draining to read and hear people (mostly anonymously) question your heart, your talent, you ability to win. So yeah, winning a tough game under the lights is a metaphorical middle finger. But it also had the distinctive F U tone to the world, to the gypsies that keep taking down players, to the incompetent play reviews and tipped passes, to cornerbacks phasing in and out of Earth-2 on long passes down the sideline, to 27-for-27, to everything bad that has happened over the years. It's Gardner looking out over the sea of fans, the joyous look on the faces of his teammates reveling in their first win in nearly a month, into the cameras of the media finally not probing for dissension or escapees from the sinking UM ship but to chronicle a gutsy win, and feeling that he survived. It's Gardner telling the world "I'm still Fucking Here, this team's still Fucking Here" and meaning it.
Go Blue. Go MF'ing Blue!
Best: Semi-Competent Win
Last week I considered it an improvement that Michigan lost to Rutgers in a semi-conventional manner, as opposed to being thoroughly outclassed in embarrassing fashion like they had against Minnesota, Utah, and Notre Dame. So consider this a slight improvement on that performance helped by the random number generator giving UM the win. The team finally beat a Power 5 team, and even though you could fill a dump truck with caveats about that fact, it was still a good win and a nice way to go into the break before the real "meat" of the schedule kicks in.
Best: Second-Half Defense
Watching PSU's first two drives felt like a portal to watching UM's recent offensive struggles, where the unit seems to be chugging along until they get 20-30 yards out and then everything bogs down and they leave with FGs (if that) instead of TDs. Under RR, MSU in 2010 jumps to mind, and under Hoke pick your loss the past couple of seasons. PSU was using tempo effectively, seemed to discover some semblance of a running game with a lot of sweeps and delayed runs inside (helped by some suspect tackling), and Hackenberg was throwing the ball quickly and effectively to Hamilton and James. But once they got to the red zone, Michigan's defense stiffened enough to hold PSU to field goals, and you could sense that UM had taken PSU's best punches in the first half and they were kinda out of options after that. In fact, after Gardner's INT gave them great position to take the lead at 13-7, PSU didn't have a drive longer than 27 yards the rest of the way, with 3 drives winding up in negative territory.
It helped that PSU seemed unable to block anybody for more than 3 seconds and absolutely played into Mattison's blitz-friendly schemes, but any time you hold an offense to under 100 yards in a half you have (a) fallen through a wormhole and are playing 2013 Michigan, and (b) done a pretty good job on your defense. And yes, I know this is a Penn State team showing the effects of sanctions, but Michigan was without a number of defensive players themselves and reeling from giving up 404 yards to Gary Nova, so 214 yards of total offense given up is something I think everyone will take.
Meh: The Almost Hail Mary
I know the general sentiment was that Hoke should have just let the half run out when PSU was facing 4th-and-1 from their own 39 instead of letting them line up for a Hail Mary, but I honestly didn't have an issue with the call. If anything, I wished he had called a TO after the previous completion and saved a couple of seconds. PSU had shown themselves unable to keep Hackenberg clean for more than a couple of seconds, and the threat of a 60+ yard completion seemed minimal especially if Michigan planned on bringing 4. If PSU elects to punt, then you give yourself a chance on a return (as unlikely as that is given the dinosaur punting formations) or you can pin your ears back and go for the block, because at best that moves PSU forward a bit but takes time off the clock. If Franklin decides to throw it up, then a million things can happen, most of them either inconsequential or bad for PSU, and would give you another chance to rattle a QB who had come up holding his arm earlier in the series and was a little jumpy due to breakdowns in protection.
Yes, there's a chance you get Kordell Stewart'd, why the heck not try to squeeze another possession out in a game (Michigan gets the ball to start the half) that was shaping up to be a defensive struggle.
Best: Thanks For (Fake) Punting
Another week, another dumb attempt at a fake punt. Last week it was Rutgers calling a good fake and then executing a throw that may still be in the air. This week it was PSU running the most obvious fake punt run (at UM's 37! Seriously!!) and UM sniffing it out almost immediately. This decision came on the heels of the previous game between MSU and Purdue, where MSU failed on their fake punt on their own 29 and Purdue turned what was a semi-comfortable 14-point game to a way-less-comfortable 7-point game.
I get the desire to extend possessions and capitalize on the general malaise and predictability of B1G teams, but when they blow up they do so spectacularly, and for once UM seems to be the beneficiary.
Best: I'm Calling Shotgun
They showed this last week as well, but it felt like Michigan's offense operated far more heavily out of the shotgun this week than in earlier games, and it absolutely helped to keep Gardner (reasonably) clean. PSU isn't known as a great pass-rushing outfit, but Gardner was only sacked 3 times, and one was basically Gardner tucking the ball and running. They even tried running the ball a bit out of the formation with Smith and Hayes, and while the results weren't great by any stretch, it did seem like the offense moved the ball most effectively when Gardner has a chance to survey the field and keep an eye on the rush.
This new approach clearly helped the passing offense, as both Funchess and Darboh made a number of nice catches within the offense, with Darboh keeping drives alive in the first quarter and Devin snagging a lob-ish pass for a TD because, well, being 6'5" and super-fast lets you do that. As for Gardner's INT, it was a combination of him trying a bit too hard to get the screen set up to Smith and Braden failing to keep his hands on Zettel. Had Zettel been engaged with Braden (it was clear that he was reading the screen by that point), he probably wouldn't have been able to get his hands up. It's a tough situation for everyone, but it was as much a great, athletic play by Zettel as it was a failure by the offense.
Of course, having proved its efficacy this week, I fully expect UM to go under center exclusively against MSU, maybe with a sprinkling of the triple option where every run is Gardner into the line.
Norfleet broke the Michigan record for kickoff return yardage in this game, and while it still remains frustrating to watch him nearly break so many returns back there without actually scoring, it's a testament to his abilities that he's been able to set the record after only 2.5-ish years of playing time. Yeah, the usual jokes about "he's had lots of opportunities" (a record 86 attempts so far) is obviously an indictment of the team's struggles these past couple of years, but for the first time since Breaston was manning the kick-off team it's felt like UM has a weapon back there (I know Stonum took one back against ND). Hopefully one of these returns will hit pay dirt.
Worst: Stop Trying so Hard
First off - it wasn't 27-for-27 (31-for-64 is, I guess, an improvement) and the team won, so take this complaint with a grain of sad, "I guess this is where we are that averaging 2 ypc is a victory" grain of salt. But it was annoying to watch the running game struggle against a statistically-stout PSU rush offense the way it did. I understand that Smith's and Hayes's first goal was to minimize negative yards, and they largely accomplished that (only 7 lost yards on the day) while not turning the ball over or otherwise endangering the offense.
That said, I'm starting to get a little bothered by the backs in this offense struggling to read holes that ARE there and seemingly looking for the homerun instead. In particular Smith always stutter-stopped before diving into the line, robbing him of momentum and turning maybe 3-4 yard runs into 1 or 2-yarders because the defense flowed to him. This is an extreme frame of reference I know, but having watched Barry Sanders growing up I've seen backs probe the line at multiple points, looking for that glimmer of daylight. But that's shoot one of the top 5 running backs in the history of college and professional football doing that, with an elite combination of speed and balance as well as an incredibly low center of gravity. Smith bouncing at the line may look like Hart, but Hart was also able to squeeze in between blockers and scrape out a couple of yards where none were there. If Smith is going to receive the lion's share of the carries going forward, he's going to need to continue to take the yards the defense is giving him and be more decisive in his cuts. I hope he'll get there this year, but given Fred Jackson's recent track record you have to wonder if it will happen behind this line.
Worst: Not Very Sneaky
In recent games, Michigan's response to 3rd- and 4th-and-short downs is the "up-tempo" QB sneak. Objectively, it's not a bad playcall when you have an athletic, tall QB who can also audible out and run to the corner if necessary. But I have two issues with its deployment in games. First, if you do it EVERY DOWN, teams figure it out, and this line (and Miller in particular) isn't designed to bulldoze tackles and linebackers back the requisite yard or two you need. Second, trotting it out when you need 2 or 3 yards is probably more than you can expect in any context. I'm all for using a quick play to catch the defense off-guard in situations like this, but a little diversity such as a Gardner run to the outside or a quick pass to the TE would do wonders to keeping it effective.
Worst: Inanity of the Announcers
I know that ESPN is all about narratives and storytelling during a game, but these announcer went that extra mile and just started rambling about inconsequential and/or irrelevant stories about the "issues" surrounding Brad Hoke and Michigan when a f'ing game was going on. Save that for the video packages and bumpers coming out of time outs and halftime, but a couple of times Gilmore would just start talking about the boycott, protestors, Morris's concussion, whatever in between downs and it felt like there was someone in his ear feeding him lines.
In particular, the story he relayed about being in the elevator with Franklin and a Michigan "fan" before the game and the fan telling Franklin that he wanted PSU to beat UM so that they could fire Hoke. Not only was that the type of story that really didn't serve a purpose (I'm sure that a fan who said he/she supported Hoke and wanted to beat PSU wouldn't have warranted a mention), but it simply reiterated a tired story that didn't need "dramatic, real-life" examples to drive home. Michigan was 2-4, there had been protests on campus, people were talking about "boycotting" this game for whatever that amounted to, etc. Michigan's tire fire has been one of the leading stories in college sports for weeks now; there have been a wealth of examples already as to the dysfunction. To their credit, as the game progressed these non-sequiters shifted away to other topics (I particularly liked the sarcastic claim that Ole Miss/Miss St. deserved the SEC "respect" rub because of their storied histories and tough OOC games), but it was still maddening to be watching the game and listening to the worst parts of sports radio.
Also, for the person in that elevator...
Worst: WTF Elevator Person!
You are the worst. Absolutely the worst. I don't give a shit if you are unhappy with the state of this team. Trust me, most people are. But when you are in the elevator with the head coach of the other team, don't tell him you are rooting for his team to beat "your" team. Not only is that incredibly disrespectful to the team and makes you look like a dumbass - you might as well pick another team to root for in you want the current one to lose. But it is also INCREDIBLY near-sighted in a practical sense. Michigan's athletic department and coaching situation can charitably be defined as a "tire fire", and losing more and more games does nothing more than throw shit on that burning graveyard of rubber. So now you've got a combination of burning shit AND rubber to deal with, which will absolutely make it even less appealing to the small number of head coaching candidates likely available at the end of the year. Recruits are going to continue to leave in droves, fan support will dwindle, current players will be demoralized and attrition may take place, and Michigan's battered reputation nationally will only get further dinged.
I can't change your opinions about the current football team, and frankly it isn't worth my time. But at the very least, keep your damn mouth shut and lie about it in situations like this. Think about it as practice for the time in a couple of years when you tell your friends you've been a "true" Michigan fan and never stopped rooting for them, you ass.
The Washington Generals of football, the Fighting Bye Weeks, will be town. I'm predicting a close win for the good guys.
As for MSU, I don't know man (sorry Brian). They're probably the best team in the conference. They also have struggled to put away teams not playing in the MAC this year. The defense looks good but no other-worldly, but this game has been circled for weeks and I suspect MSU will be juiced up for it. IU might be the beneficiary of this, as MSU's secondary has looked shaky and they could well be looking past the Hoosiers, so who knows if Michigan will be going to East Lansing to face a reeling Spartan squad or not. Regardless, it'll be a slobber-knocker, and right now I don't see how UM emerges victorious unless they play a near-perfect game.