Note: This gets saucy.
Worst: Death of an Optimist
People who have followed this diary know I'm a pretty optimistic guy.
But I'm done. I'm done with this season, with this coaching staff, with this whole f'ing show.
It isn't the losing; teams lose games. Utah isn't a good team, but neither is UM, and this was one of those games, like ND, where the breaks of the game are zero-sum; "good" plays require the other side to have a "bad" ones, but those constructs aren't always tied to the overall qualities of the two teams. In other words, while Utah's punt return for a TD is because Brady Hoke is a dinosaur with his head up a slightly less-evolved dinosaur's ass, a college kicker connecting on a couple of 50-ish FGs in a rain storm is just kinda ¯(ツ)/¯.
But I'm getting off track. I'm not a fan of hypoerbole, but this is the Mississippi State game for RR times a hundred. Last year's MSU game was horrible but it was expected given how poorly the offensive line looked and how tough MSU's defense turned out to be. But Utah isn't a good team defensively, or at least isn't the type of defense that should be able to hold UM to 3 points offensively. It isn't the points that matter, though, because that would be comically simple and depressing. Both Idaho St. and Fresno St., two teams with a combined 2 wins in 7 tries between them, scored more points against this Utah team, and both of those games were on the road. And it isn't the yardage or statistics, as UM outgained Utah on the ground, took fewer penalties, dominated TOP for most of the game, and for long stretches looked dominant defensively. Like against Notre Dame, the team played better than the numbers on the scoreboard.
So maybe this is just another bad break, you say. And maybe Utah is poised to go off on another undefeated, fantastic season, and Michigan was just the first of many unlikely victims. And honestly, that mindset would have been me a couple of weeks ago. But things have changed. No, what happened Saturday is more than a bad loss, because those happen to good teams all the time. And it wasn't just that the f'ing winningest team in f'ing college football history, with a 5th-year QB and a 1st-round WR and oodles of talent up and down the roster (young as it may be), couldn't score more than 3 points against f'ing Utah. No, what killed my optimism about this team and this staff, about this program as it is currently stumbling through another shitty year, is how absolutely true-to-form it is to the dreams of the men in charge. Which brings me to my next point...
Worst-est: This is Michigan Football
For Dave Brandon and Brady Hoke, this is the perfect embodiment of football. No, not the losses, but that's secondary. To both of them, this brand of Michigan football is a perverse homage to a bygone era in football when men were men and you won because of grit and heart and having institutional advantages over smaller programs due to years of recruiting tactics, demographics, and inertia. It's stupid punting formations, always huddling without any sense of urgency, the 100k attendance record, and wringing every last possible dollar out of a fanbase that for decades was all too happy to do so if you stroked its ego and won 8 or more games a year. The Michigan that we all see on the field isn't what most of us want, but it's what the hive mind in Schembechler Hall thinks is good for business in Ann Arbor, and so nobody with the power to change it wants to right the boat. And that's a f'ing tragedy, because the lights are going out and Jack ain't coming to put UM on a door until the rescue party arrives.
Michigan isn't what it was, and "what it was" was never how a certain subset of the fanbase, including apparently this administration, remembers it. I know it is blasphemy to question the "fabled" history of UM football, but since the 1940s Michigan has been the definition of a high-level "plugger", the type of team that won games by showing up and beating the teams they should and losing to the teams they should by following a simple script. And yet as the game kept changing, Michigan remained its anachronistic self, buffered somewhat by this conference's stupidity-sealed bubble that talks about competing nationally while the University of Kentucky out-recruits everyone not named Michigan, OSU, or Nebraska and hiring every mediocre MAC coach with a pulse while the rest of college football laughs and points.
And when the fanbase seemingly had had enough of being run off their own field by a bunch of fowl, and the administration took a shot on a guy who helped bring about the current age of the sport and won everywhere he coached, a bunch of faux sentinels of the "good days" cut off his legs at every chance and sat back as a combination of self-inflicted wounds and the rotten core of a dying program ending his run. RR's failure as a head coach at Michigan is one thing; you can be a good coach and not be a good fit at certain places. But Brandon and his cohort didn't view Rodriguez's ousting at UM simply as a bad fit, but instead as "proof" that this new-fangled version of college football, where smart guys try to take advantage of inefficiencies in the game and implement offensive and defensive systems to do so, is just a fad and the good old days of swinging your member around on the sidelines and expecting the opposition to be scared off are back. Instead of trying to find another good coach and help him with the PR element, Brandon did what he learned as a one-time CEO of a mediocre mass-market pizza maker (acquiring the position only because his investment firm was trying to flip Domino's for a short profit) and hired a guy for a short-term PR bump and to goose the bottom line without considering the long-term ramifications for the program.
And that gets us to Brady Hoke, the last guy in the room when the music stopped. Hoke seems like a perfectly nice human being (when not talking to the press) who was a mediocre head coach before he came to UM (though I do think the under-.500 record part is a dumb metric) and who rode some nice pieces to an 11-win season before reverting to what he is; a guy who isn't very aware of modern college football and doesn't care much for what he has heard. Brian keeps referring to Hoke and Brandon thinking the ideal football was played in 1997; to me, that's being generous. That team may have been conventionally similar to past units, but for one year Carr recognized he had great talents in guys like Woodson, Griese, Tuman, Thomas, Ray, etc. and put them in positions to succeed. Hoke looks at a team with a 5th-year QB who can outrun most defenders and who has a physically dominant WR and tries to nut up for 3 yards a carry after bleeding 30 seconds from the game clock. He's not an idiot (the guy has forgotten more football than I've ever known), but he is stubborn, myopic, and as beholden to his "system" as any coach; the problem is his system should have been buried with hair metal and New Coke when its expiration was hit.
And sadly, even if Hoke and Brandon are gone at the end of the year, I don't see how things really change around here. Michigan isn't going to try to get an up-and-coming AD with a focus on fan appreciation; they'll just hire another suit who talks about brand management, synergy, and "keeping true to tradition" while everyone else in college football politely nods in public and laughs in private. And best-case scenario (for some) Michigan gets a Harbaugh or a Harbaugh-type, which means UM probably wins for a couple of years behind a dynamite recruiter before he pisses off enough people (or gets enticed back to the NFL) and then we start this song-and-dance again.
So I guess that's the state of Michigan right now: a degenerate looking for his next quick fix, afraid to venture outside of his comfort because it might mean truly having to change. Michigan is no longer the "leaders and the best", but a f'ing punchline to discussions about antiquated football and how the new guard of college football teams are making their mark. This is Michigan, and it ain't going to change anytime soon.
Worst: The Offensive Playcalling
I'm not going to crap on the offensive players too much because (a) I'm not a fan on picking on college kids when they are clearly competing, and (b) they didn't do THAT badly. Yes, there were a distressing number of TFLs, and the offensive line looked out of sorts at times, but many of the issues felt like miscues more than an inability to perform. Devin Gardner was off all day, Funchess seemed limited by a lingering ankle injury that was totally worth the 4-yard gain he picked up against Notre Dame when Michigan was losing 31-0, and nobody else seemed able to catch the ball or get open downfield. Green ran well when he made a decisive cut, but struggled at times with decisions and being asked to run parallel to the line against a small-but-fast Utah front 7. It was a bad performance, but it felt in large part due to the playcalling.
Man was this an awful game to watch from a coaching perspective. It reached its nadir when Chris Spielman loudly pointed out that Michigan showed absolutely no sense of urgency in the 4th quarter despite, you know, being within 2 scores of a lead/tie. He kept using this word "tempo" and "speeding up the game" as if this coaching staff had ANY FUCKING clue what that meant beyond that fact that it was what "pussies" used when they couldn't play football. Every play was stare at the sideline for the signal, huddle up, walk to the line, act like you are going to check into something else when the only playcall was to slam your collective dong into the doorjam again, run the clock down to near 0, then repeat. It was playcalling for appearances instead of purpose; Brian equated it to looking like you were playing football when you really weren't trying to. Today was worse than when it happened against ND because at least there the game was out of reach and I suspected that the staff didn't want it to get any uglier by taking more risks with a young team on the road. But this was was a home game against a meh opponent that Michigan was absolutely still in; a TD score at any point in that second half turns that into a very real game and maybe changes the outcome. But the offensive playcalling stunk of quitting, of trying to keep the boss happy. It was disheartening and frankly offensive to the fans, and one more middle finger to everyone from guys whose arms should be tired by now.
Michigan never tried to throw deep, or if they did it was only after botched play-action passes that needed eons to set up and left Gardner eating well-timed blitzes in the gut or throwing into quad coverage because the captain has turned on the "THROW TO FUNCHESS" sign in the cockpit. Maybe with Funchess being hurt they lacked a deep threat, which is sad but could have been mitigated somewhat with the type of slants, crossing-patterns, picks, etc. that other teams have in their arsenal. When it became apparent that parts of the line weren't going to be able to hold up against Utah's until-this-game mediocre pass rush, nobody on Michigan's sideline thought to turn the playsheet over and try to throw from the shotgun to at least give Gardner a chance to see the rush and survey the field. Norris and Orchard were living in the backfield for most of the game and Michigan's response was apparently to keep running their base offense and, I don't know, hope they get tired. I stopped keeping count of the number of 2nd-and-longs and 3rd-and-longs that Michigan set on fire with draw plays and short throws to the outside, and for every nice playcall (e.g. the pitch for the 1st on 4th down), there were absolutely boneheaded ones (Gardner's scramble on the failed 4th down conversion where Michigan had 1 blocker for 3 Utah defenders).
Now, I recognize that some of the struggles were in execution versus playcalling; Nussmeier and Hoke aren't calling in for Williams to whiff on a block or for Funchess to short-arm the catch on Gardner's first INT. I'm sure Gardner has been instructed to work through his progressions, but in this game it seemed like it was 1-and-scramble. And I'm willing to cut Nussmeier a bit more slack because, well, the guy has only been here for 4 games and it is hard to un-teach some bad habits. But Borges is gone and the same stupid shit keeps happening, and this feels more and more like a mandate from Hoke, or at least a desire to run the most inefficient offense imaginable.
Worst: About Those "Hidden Yar..."
Worst: You Stupid Ass, Stop Punting Like it's 1970
So yeah, you know how Brian talked about "hidden yards" in the preview against Utah and how Michigan's punting formations have bitten them in the ass since Hoke showed up? Well, Utah took one to the house to take the lead in the 2nd quarter and finished with 83 yards in returns. Michigan? They finished with 3 yards, with a long of 9 that was basically Norfleet making a bunch of guys miss. I don't think it made a huge difference in this game, but it remains one of the MANY embarrassing elements of this coaching staff.
Best: The Defense Deserves Better
Under Rich Rodriguez, it was trendy to say that Michigan's offense deserved better than the historically bad defense they had, and while that wasn't 100% true it did feel like the offense suffered somewhat by the defense being unable to get off the field. Well, under Hoke it feels like the tables have turned; the defense has become one of the better units in the country while the offense has regressed tremendously. Outside of an RPS 67-yard pass in the first quarter, Michigan's defense was sufficiently dominant in the first half. It scored on an INT and constantly harassed Utah QBs, including a tombstone piledriver the likes of which you usually only see in bingo halls surrounded by Juggalos.
Even as the game progressed and Utah pulled away, the defense kept Michigan in it. Utah had three total drives over 54 yards on the day, ending in a total of 10 points. The two second-half FGs were just great kicks; when a college kicker puts 48- and 50-yarders through the uprights with yards to spare in a driving rain storm, you just have to shrug and move on. Plus, both of those scoring drives came after offensive turnovers, one on downs and the other on Gardner's second INT.
For the game UM held Utah to around 2 yards per carry, 35% on 3rd-down conversions, and under 300 total yards despite facing 69 plays. They had 11 TFLs, including 3 sacks. The unit still lacks a dominant playmaker, but it is rapidly-improving and has shown it against a couple of good offenses. Put this unit with IU's offense and the Hoosiers are winning this conference in a walk. Though it is unlikely in the event of a coaching change, it would behoove Michigan greatly to keep Greg Mattison and the bulk of this defensive staff together, especially if it means they can move Manning out of the secondary and into a better fit.
Frank Clark continued his great season with his first sack, and if he continues to play like this he'll be hearing his name in the first couple of rounds of the NFL draft. I thought Jourdan Lewis played really well, getting to breakups and generally keeping up with Utah's WRs. Countess looked comfortable at Nickle, and Jake Ryan looked as disruptive as we've seen all year. Willie Henry had his fat guy TD, and was able to get a push inside that really disrupted Utah's entire offense for long stretches of the game. It was a performance worthy of a win, and my lagging hope for this team rests squarely on the defense keeping them in games against the dreck of the conference coming up.
Worst: Can You Have a QB Controversy When Everybody Struggles?
Gardner looked like a mess after that first quarter, but Morris didn't look any better when he came in the 4th quarter. Gardner was throwing late all day, and got Funchess crunched a couple of times on balls that shouldn't have been thrown; you are seeing what 3 OCs in 5 years (and no real QB coaching) can do to a guy. Part of the blame should fall on him for repeating the same mistakes, but it's hard to imagine that Gardner would have to go on an impressive hot streak to come close to approaching the numbers he put up last year, one that many Michigan fans consider a disappointment.
Morris showed a bit of life and still has all the tools to be a top QB, but it's been 2 years and the game still seems to be flying by him a million miles an hour, and next year I guess he'll just have to figure it out on the job, because there is nobody waiting in the wings to step in unless Malzonne comes in like a house of fire. If you want to throw in the towel on the season then I guess you give Morris more reps and see what happens, but based on Hoke's press conference he seems set on the farce that Michigan can still compete for conference titles and will roll with Gardner to the end. Gardner still feels like the best option, but at this point I'm not sure it matters.
Worst: Michigan Screwed Michigan
One of the seminal moments in modern wrestling history was the night that the "Vince McMahon" character became an on-screen entity during the infamous "Montreal Screwjob". The Cliffnotes version is that then-WWF/E champion Bret "The Hitman" Hart had agreed to sign with WWF/E's main rival WCW, and before leaving Vince McMahon wanted Hart to lose the title to "The Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels. Now, Hart and Michaels did not get along for a variety of reasons, chief amongst them the fact that Michaels was a notorious asshole at the time and Hart came from the old-school wrestling Hart family. Hart had absolutely no desire to lose the belt to Michaels, and had told Vince he'd drop it to anyone else. Making the matter even more difficult was the fact that the next PPV was Survivor Series in Canada, Hart's home country and a place where he is a beloved son. Varying accounts note that both sides had agreed on a screwy finish to the match such that Bret retained against Michaels but he would lose the title shortly thereafter.
During the course of the match, Michaels locked in Hart's signature sharpshooter submission hold. This is a common trope in wrestling, and typically doesn't lead to a finish in the match but instead simply some added drama. Yet, as soon as Michaels had locked in the hold and the referee started asking Hart if he submitted, McMahon called for the bell and informed everyone that Hart had tapped and awarded the title to Michaels. Mayhem ensued, with Hart trying to kill people in the ring and beating up McMahon backstage. Hart left for WCW shortly thereafter and only semi-recently made peace with the WWF/E. For his part, McMahon became one of the most hated/beloved heels in wrestling history, and helped kick-start the Attitude Era that was the last boom period for professional wrestling.
So why bring this up here? Well, because the story morphed from McMahon screwing over Bret Hart to Hart doing it to himself by failing to evolve and work with the direction wrestling was going. Hart was a popular champion but not a transcendent one, and while his in-ring work was top-notch he wasn't pushing PPV gates and merchandising enough to justify his salary. He was poached by WCW as much to piss off McMahon and weaken his promotion than because WCW felt Hart would be a huge star for them; though his career was cut short following a concussion during a match with Goldberg it wasn't a smashing success after the initial excitement of the move. Hart wasn't a dinosaur by any means, but like Michigan he seemed always a bit stuck in the past, a little too earnest and milquetoast for an entertainment medium that was moving closer to the edge of raunchiness. It didn't mean he couldn't be successful, but the ceiling was there for him.
I know this is repeating stuff from above, but Michigan put themselves in this position by ignoring most of the changes that have been going in college football for the past 10-15 years. They are scared of change not because they are afraid of failure as much as they are afraid of ever having to explain WHY something didn't work. Hoke would rather stand there in front of the press and say they didn't "execute" or "make enough plays" to win instead of saying he tried something new and he believes in it even though short-term results are poor, because with the prior you can harken to the past and at least say you were doing your job. But try something new, anything new, and you have to justify why, and my gawd is that impossible right now for this group of guys. Maybe Hoke and the team will rally; again, this is a terrible conference and they could lose to MSU and OSU and still finish with a decent bowl game. But the past ain't coming back, and the longer this school keeps its head in the sand about it the more irrelevant they will be.
I'm calling this a best because Minnesota can't throw the ball and is even less creative offensively than Michigan; Michigan will probably win this game and Hoke will be able to stand at the podium and spout off about "heart" and "resiliency". But this season is already lost, and the sooner it is put out of its misery the better.