Unverified Voracity Minds The Gap

Unverified Voracity Minds The Gap

Submitted by Brian on November 12th, 2010 at 2:17 PM

This is real? Um, so, this is apparently what Michigan is wearing for the Big Chill:

big-chill-monstrosity

That is hideous. It's going to be the worst thing I ever see a Michigan team wear live. That's not a Wolverine. It's a ferret or something, and the day-glo yellow is something Oregon would be comfortable with, and I can see the 1980s Vancouver Canucks think the shoulder striping is wicked.

Other people like it, I guess, but man… put me in the "no" column.

Maybe yes, maybe no. Depending on how you define luck, Michigan has either been lucky or unlucky. The lucky part: Michigan is 4-0 in close games, though I think defining the UMass game as "close" is a stretch since onside kicks are recovered about 10% of the time when the opponent knows it's coming. If the UMass game was close than Michigan's games against Penn State and Iowa were close since Michigan had ample opportunity to get a stop that would give them a chance to tie.

Anyway, so they're 3-0 in close games but they're also hammering opponents in total yards and have been undone by yet another ugly turnover margin and terrible special teams. Braves and Birds puts together a chart with various interesting numbers:

To the chart we go!

  YPP Off. YPP Def. YPP Mar. Sagarin SRS
Ohio State 6.1 4.2 +1.9 88.22 15.36
Iowa 6.2 4.9 +1.3 86.17 15.29
Mich. State 6.0 5.2 +.8 79.56 12.16
Wisconsin 5.9 5.4 +.5 79.37 11.59
Illinois 5.1 5.2 -.1 79.29 9.06
Michigan 6.9 6.3 +.6 74.48 5.21
Penn State 5.5 5.9 -.4 73.84 5.02
NW 5.4 5.8 -.4 66.94 -0.63
Indiana 4.7 7.3 -2.6 63.63 -0.08
Purdue 4.2 5.3 -1.1 59.62 -6.07
Minn. 5.0 6.4 -1.4 58.57 -9.43

(Note: the yardage numbers come only from games against BCS conference opponents. This includes games against Notre Dame.)

Michigan's yards per play margin is on par with the weaker teams challenging for the conference title and well clear of the conference rabble, even with a defense far worse than anyone save Indiana and Minnesota. Where Michigan falls apart are the places not found on the chart, in turnovers and special teams. At least this year there's a clear reason for the turnover margin: the defense. Michigan's lost 17 turnovers this year; the NCAA average is 15.75. The defense has only acquired ten. Assuming Denard can lower his interception rate like most quarterbacks do, next year Michigan can finally approach turnover parity if the defense takes the significant step forward it could.

Anyway, B&B pulled out this chart because he'd created one for the SEC as a vehicle to discuss whether Georgia had been unlucky (conclusion: yes) and tried to figure out if the same was true for Michigan. He concludes it's a mixed bag and I agree; Michigan may have been unlucky to suffer scads of turnovers against MSU and Iowa but since a lot of those TOs resulted from Denard's now-established tendency to throw behind his receiver that's more an effect of talent limitations than bloody fate.

There's significantly more wobble in the TO numbers than most anything else year to year but certain things do reliably cause turnovers: quarterback inexperience and pressure. Michigan's had a lot of inexperience, little pressure on the opponent, and little pressure on Michigan. Results are average TO numbers against and terrible for.

Arithmetic, yo. The fundamental flaw with Spread Is Dead rhetoric is a fundamental change in the nature of offense when the quarterback can both run and throw. In an article for the Wolverine, Jon Chait gets the point across:

It's worth keeping all this in mind when you hear sports commentators announce that defenses have "caught up to the spread." It's partially true, but only partially… The part they haven't caught up to is having a quarterback in the shotgun who can read an un-blocked defender and keep the ball on almost any running play. That is the real game-changer in the spread system. It alters the entire arithmetic of the game, allowing the offense to always have enough blockers to account for the defenders in the box, while also forcing defenses into stripped-down pass coverages. Defenses can't catch up to this dynamic because you can't "catch up to" arithmetic.

The most striking thing about the Rodriguez videos everyone pored over in the aftermath of his hire was his assumption about the number of safeties he would face: one… or zero? That's the arithmetic that sees Michigan averaging over six yards a carry along with two other true spread 'n' shreds (Oregon and Auburn) and two other teams whose quarterbacks average just under 100 yards a game (Nevada and Nebraska). At the same time Michigan averages 9.2(!) YPA, because the safety question is now one or zero instead of one or two*.

*(With some limited exceptions, like Iowa. Iowa gave up over 500 yards only to see Michigan thwart itself spectacularly; since the 28 they gave up there was only exceeded by Wisconsin—Arizona got a ton of points on ST—that's kinda sorta a reason the question about safeties has changed.)

Gapping it. Given the first two bullets this table from Doctor Saturday won't be a surprise:

the-gap

The Mathete's been tracking this disparity too and by his numbers, which go back to 2002, Michigan has a bigger gap between O and D performance than anyone. In my eyes this is a reason to keep Rodriguez around since it should be easier to find an average defense with an established elite offensive mind in place than revamp the program considerably.

Ballin' out of control. If you didn't see this happen you are like me but I can appreciate it in retrospect:

Your offense has the ball on its own 12-yard line with a 30-28 lead and 3:39 to play in the fourth quarter. The defense has just used the first of three timeouts. Your quarterback, who you've already tried to bench on two separate occasions this season before injuries forced him back into the lineup, completes an eight-yard pass on 3rd-and-9. You let the clock run down to 2:50, then call your first timeout. Now facing a 4th-and-1 from your own 19-yard line with a two-point lead and less than three minutes to play, do you:

a) Punt and play defense;
b) Line up like you're going for it in an effort to draw the defense offsides, then use your second timeout and punt if the defense doesn't jump;
c) Seriously, anything other than a punt risks a turnover with the ball already in prime position for the game-winning field goal. Just kick it already;
d) Are we really still debating this?
Or
e) Spit as hard as you can and actually go for it.

Randy Edsall and mansome Jordan Todman went for it, got four yards, and got to kneel out the game after another couple first downs. This is spectacular for the following reasons:

  1. Todman finished with 37 carries for 220 yards and had already established he was capable of running down Pitt's throat
  2. Tino Sunseri had completed 20 of 28 passes for 220 yards and had just brought Pitt within two two minutes ago.
  3. If you don't make it you sell out to stop them from getting a first down and get the ball back with a shot at the win, but…
  4. It's fourth and one and your tailback has 200 yards. You're going to make it.

You could tell Zook wanted to go for it on several fourth and ones Michigan forced, but the closest he came to pulling the trigger was taking a delay of game on one. A tip of the cap to Edsall for overcoming his dread and getting a well-deserved win. People invariably call this "guts" or "balls" and while it is gutsy it's also the right call. God, I just thought about Lloyd Carr punting from the OSU 34 in 2005.

NEW TOPIC: no Big East team now has fewer than three losses and 8-4 looks like the best case scenario for the conference champion. Fire the Big East.

Scrub is a guy who can't get no love from me. Pro bowl cornerback supposed height chart from Touch The Banner:

Pro Bowl cornerbacks graph

Not much to tell except once you start getting shorter than 5'10" your shot at the super big time gets dim. I'd like to see an equivalent of this with All Conference teams to see what the breakdown is there. I bet it's shorter.

Four verts. Remember that second and twenty two Illinois converted easily? Yeah, that was four verticals against cover three, I think, and that didn't work so well. Here's a primer on what to do about it—mostly get those linebackers ten yards deep as soon as they read pass. In that down and distance that should have been "before the snap," but Michigan had them all tight and they didn't get sufficient distance, or a chuck, and Vinopal was way too deep, and bang.

Etc.: Soony Saad shot Michigan past MSU in the Big Ten soccer tournament yesterday despite Justin Meram getting a second yellow for celebration after he tied the game. They play Wisconsin today for a shot at the final. The bagpipe rendition of Amazing Grace from last weekend. Holdin' the Rope reminisces about childhood visits to West Lafayette. An interview with Jon Falk.

Parachute Check

Parachute Check

Submitted by Brian on September 20th, 2010 at 11:28 AM

9/17/2010 – Michigan 42, UMass 37 – 3-0 

imageimage

Melanie Maxwell/AnnArbor.com

Well… at least it wasn't as grim as it looked a with about a minute before halftime, when my head was in my hands and I could feel the cave feces covering my body as I wished for a merciful death. Maybe an albino salamander would crawl down my throat or something. Then the offense did a large number of very fast things and the defense managed to stop the UMass offense like once or twice and then they managed to not quite blow it at the end.

And so here we are. If you ever wanted to know what it would have been like if Michigan had made that field goal at the end of The Horror you have your answer: not at all good but approximately a trillion times better than the alternative. The stanktastic defensive performance was exactly what Michigan fans feared was going to happen after every defensive back within hailing distance of the two deep exploded, except worse. I kind of expected Wisconsin might put up 37 points on a series of long, grinding drives. Not so much a team that launched a stirring comeback to nip William & Mary.

That combined with the pratfall by UConn against Temple and Notre Dame's admittedly delicious overtime punking leaves an uncomfortable taste in the mouth. Last year around this time I was surveying the outlook after Michigan got significantly outgained by Indiana but escaped by the skin of their teeth. The game column was sarcastically titled "The Soaring Majesty!":

Since we didn't [lose], we should all just breathe a sigh of relief, recalibrate expectations back down a little bit, and move on. Michigan's not at a point where any win against any Big Ten team is one to freak out about. The freshmen quarterbacks remain freshmen and it's becoming clear that the defense has about the same raw talent level that last year's offense had. The only thing keeping them from plunging off a deep, dark cliff is the fact that no position on defense is as singularly important as quarterback is on offense.

Michigan didn't win a game against a non-seal opponent the rest of the year. It was this much fun: no fun.

This is the point where I take a finger, insert it into the collar of my shirt, and make an uncomfortable facial expression David Letterman has mastered and is impossible to Google. (What do you type, "Letterman shirt uncomfortable"? "Letterman neck trick"?)Just imagine you're wearing a tie and your boss has called you into his office during a period of right-sizing and you're a big vaudeville buff. It's like that.

It's like that because of the following facts:

  • Jonathan Hernandez had 114 yards on 26 carries with a long of 15.
  • John Griffin had 96 yards on 17 carries with a long of 19.
  • Kyle Havens went 22 of 29 for 222 yards with a long of 19.

That is a complete demolition at the hands of a I-AA team without even blowing it big. UMass got two short fields when Michigan had a punt blocked and Cam Gordon fumbled an interception, but even dropping those out of the equation UMass drives went FG, punt, TD, punt, TD, fumble, punt, TD, INT; both of the short field drives started around the 25 and ended in Michigan's endzone. And at no point did they get a cheap touchdown due to a secondary implosion. They just ground down the field as if Michigan was the I-AA team. Given the level of competition, it's probably the worst defensive performance of the Rodriguez era, and that's saying something. If not for the Post-Apocalyptic Oregon Game we'd be reaching back to Bump's days to find something worse. The parallels to last year are scary.

I can tell you to look at the yardage and feel better, which still works for me to some extent. Michigan still didn't outgain a BCS opponent until the Purdue game in 2009 and they have a demolition of UConn to their name. I can tell you to look at what Purdue and Indiana and Illinois are doing and count to seven that way and then rely on someone else (MSU? Iowa? Penn State?) getting Denarded for the eighth win that would officially exceed expectations, and that helps too. I can point to Iowa's 2009 season, which started out with a one-point win over Northern Iowa in which the Hawkeyes were outgained and had to block two(!) field goals on consecutive plays to avoid the killer upset. Four games later Iowa survived 24-21 against Arkansas State; they ended the year by whipping Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl.

All of these things say football is weird and last weekend was probably an aberration and Michigan's defense will be bad but probably not that bad. But it's hard to shake the feeling of deja vu. We jumped out of a plane and went WOOOOOO because everything is fast and fun and now we're trying to ignore the feeling that the parachute might have transferred to West Virginia. Again.

But at least there's Denard, right? Right. The silver lining to all of this is that he's going to have insane stats because Michigan's got no choice. That's the ticket.

NON-BULLETS

Pulaski time. This has been kicking around message boards and my head since I was annoyed that Michigan threw the ball on third and six early in the game and then whiffed another field goal: given the situation, should Michigan emulate that Arkansas high school team that never, ever punts? Consider:

  • The offense is pretty awesome, making a successful fourth-down conversion worth more points than it would be if it was still 2008.
  • The defense is pretty terrible, making the loss of field position from an unsuccessful conversion less of an issue than it would be with a defense more likely to stop the opponent. A good defense is more likely to get you the ball back approximately where you booted it from; Michigan's is likely to get you the ball back via kickoff.
  • Will Hagerup spent the ND game shanking balls into the stands and dropped a snap against UMass, getting his punt blocked.
  • The field goal kickers are 1 of 4 and Rodriguez is openly pleading for any student, clueless or not, to try out.

So… yeah. When the Mathlete did a study with his enormous database of plays he concluded that 1) your defense has no impact on the decision (something I disagree with) and 2) that if your offense is good the light is almost always green:

4th-down-good-offense

Maybe some of the Mathlete's assumptions are wrong there (he gives an across-the-board 10% increase in conversion percentage) but even an average offense should be going on fourth and medium anywhere near midfield; Michigan is looking considerably better than average.

I'm hoping Rodriguez starts playing with going on fourth down in mind. If anyone was ever going to test the limits of Romer-ian game theory it would be this Michigan team. It's NCAA '11 time.

Probably no need to get alarmed for next week at least. Bowling Green is 1-2 with losses to Tulsa and Troy with a win coming last week over Marshall. In that game, Marshall's QB chucked four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. MGoUser BGwolverine13 has some information on their season to date. It sounds like the starting quarterback will sit out this week after suffering a concussion, which is doubly bad for BG since their rushing offense is currently 111th nationally at 2.7 YPC.

Is it sad that we're talking about this? Yes.

Yeah, pretty much.

What happened? Michigan's first two opponents went down to defeat over the weekend, too, seriously damaging their value when it comes to projecting the future. You probably know what went down in the MSU-ND game, but UConn losing to Temple 30-16 hurts.

How did that happen? Well, the Huskies did outgain Temple by 34 yards. (WOO!) They went from 16-14 up to 27-16 down via a fumble return touchdown and a four-yard touchdown drive after a big punt return. Zach Frazer appears to be pure awful (4.8 YPA) and their defense grim in all phases. Temple RB Bernard Pierce had 169 yards on 26 carries and his long was just 38; UConn is not good.

Meanwhile, the ND-MSU game was as dead even as you would expect an overtime game to be. Michigan State ended up outgaining ND 477-461, with the final 29 yards for MSU coming on the trick play that's going to make TWIS so fun this afternoon. Notre Dame's defense was thoroughly gashed by land and sea, giving up 203 yards on 43 carries and allowing Kirk Cousins to complete 23 of 33 passes. ND ran Armando Allen just 13 times despite the fact he is very good and was picking up 5.5 yards a crack; Dayne Crist was 32 of 55 for a bunch of yards, one INT, and 4 TDs. The teams had 13 possessions each.

Conclusion? Michigan State is about Michigan's equal and the game will be a shootout nailbiter.

Goals met? On defense obviously none. On special teams obviously none. Jeremy Gallon is on a streak of five straight terrible decisions on difficult punts to field and should either be replaced or given a return buddy who hangs out ten yards in front of him and fields the crappy ones.

On offense, we did see the healthy and productive return of Junior Hemingway. Taylor Lewan got in and was reportedly mauling people, which okay I-AA team but still that's an encouraging sign when your freshman tackle gets in to replace a guy who's played well so far. And Michael Shaw put up some of those yard things that Denard always gets. We did not get to see Cox, Toussaint, or Hopkins, unfortunately. (Toussaint may still be injured. He dressed but was only participating in some drills before the game.)

The one important thing that Michigan seemed to establish is the existence of a Denard deep ball. UMass was playing tight man coverage most of the day and Denard went deep twice to beat it, hitting Kelvin Grady on a deep seam and Stonum on a fly route. Both balls were well thrown. If you add that to the rest of the stuff Denard can do, hoo boy.

A note on the interception: he had Roundtree open for a touchdown but did the same thing he did against ND where he threw the ball on a line, allowing a safety to come underneath it and deflect it to the guy running a step or two behind Roundtree.

Lloyd-ballin' it note. Hated the third and one iso to Vincent Smith, though not getting it wasn't Smith's fault since there was an unblocked guy tearing in from the edge. But the whole advantage of having a running quarterback is that you get that extra blocker, which seems most useful on third and one. Michigan should have a version of Gator Heavy where Koger, Webb, and whichever RB they think is the best blocker line up to the same side of the formation and they just Tebow their way forward.

ELSEWHERE

Michigan Exposures has photo galleries from the pregame and game. You are also implored to check out UMGoBlog's gallery. MVictors catches Scooter Vaughn in a moment of extreme Scooterdom.

Mas mealer:

The Hoover Street Rag tries to maintain calm:

Now, all of the said, consider, if you will, where a Michigan fan might be standing right now.  Since September 1, 2007, you have seen your team play 40 games.  In that time span as of this weekend, you have seen your team win as many games as they have lost.  Twenty Saturdays up, twenty Saturdays down.  Twenty times happy, twenty times sad.  You have seen hope crushed in the waking moments of a new rising sun.  You have seen hope's corpse taken out back and burned repeatedly.  You've seen redemption come from unlikely sources.  You've seen a cold night in Champaign.  You've seen a darn near miracle in Orlando.  You've seen a comeback like nothing you've seen before in Ann Arbor.  You've seen another quarterback in orange and blue leave flame trails behind him like a time-traveling DeLorean.  You've seen a walk-on save the Jug.  You've seen a freshman led an unlikely comeback in a shootout.  You've seen all hope die on four chances from the one.  You've seen an invasion of red into the Big House.  You've seen a sophomore do things we only thought that other teams did to Michigan.  You've seen 20 wins and 20 losses. 
So maybe this is why Saturday's performance doesn't bother me.  It was a win.  The gap between "survives upset bid" or "gets a scare from an FCS school" and losing is a chasm visible from space.  We've been on the other side of that chasm, or perhaps more accurately at the bottom of it. 
Maize & Go Blue also says remain calm. Remain, maintain, calm. Britain stands alone.
 

"We were terrible on defense," Roh said. "We just didn't look like we were prepared to play and we didn't make adjustments during the game.

"I promise you'll not see another game like that from us again."

From Roh's lips to Tebow's ears.

Of The Decade: Worst Plays Part I

Of The Decade: Worst Plays Part I

Submitted by Brian on July 27th, 2010 at 10:45 AM

Previously in this series: ESPN Images, Michigan's offense, and Michigan's defense.

This one goes to 11 despite my intention to make it a top ten list because I wrote them up piecemeal and at some point after too much effort had been put into each to throw any away I realized I had an extra item. This is obviously fate, so here they are.

These are ranked by gut because you can't put a number on the special sort of misery football can inflict. How to rate high on thie list:

  • Represent a major missed opportunity. Games from the Year of Infinite Pain do feature prominently but towards the end of the list because reversing any one of them means you went 8-4, which BFD.
  • Be an easily preventable error. Sometimes bad stuff happens. Sometimes you do it to yourself.
  • Be the obvious start of something terrible; some individual plays on the list were moments when it became clear a large number of plays later were going to be very bad.

And now on with the hairshirts!

11. Unblocking That Field Goal

Dusty Magnum lines up for a 38 yard field goal on the last play of the 2005 Rose Bowl. Michigan charges hell-bent after the kick and gets two players in position to block the thing, but the ball manages to split Ernest Shazor's arms, taking a deflection off his elbow. The slightly redirected ball squeezes through Prescott Burgess's hands and through the uprights. Michigan loses 38-37.

The event:

shazor-rose-bowl-block

The aftermath:

rose-bowl-field-goal shazor-rose-bowl

A lot of these moments to come are going to be events that cost Michigan some opportunity in the future. This one was simple: if Shazor's dive takes him an inch to the left or right, Michigan wins one of the classic Rose Bowls of all time and I don't spend a couple hours making "The Five Stages of Vince Young" in a South Park character generator.

Despite that, the play is mostly notable for how close Michigan came to doing something that is hard to do, does not involve a Michigan player or coach making a terrible decision*, and did come at the end of a classic someone had to lose. I don't know… it just doesn't rate compared to the rest of the stuff enclosed herein. Losing a close Rose Bowl is hardly the worst thing that's happened to Michigan in the last ten years.

*(Michigan did not attempt to save itself any time in case the field goal was good but Mangum was somewhat shaky and Vince Young was unstoppable the whole night; if Texas was willing to take a 38-yarder I would have been happy enough to let them if I was coaching.)

brown-jug-2005 10. The Worst Blitz Ever

Late in the 2005 Minnesota game, Jim Herrmann lines up LB Prescott Burgess as a DE opposite the Gopher right tackle. With face-crushing tight end Matt Spaeth also to that side of the field, a 230 pound linebacker who's never played DE is one-on-two versus the best run-blocking line in the conference. Herrmann's playcall is a blitz from the other side of the field that sucks the safety on Burgess's side back into a centerfield position, and a simple off-tackle run goes for 60 yards, allowing Minnesota to kick a game-winning field goal.

Unquestionably the dumbest single playcall any Michigan coach made during the last decade. Michigan was tied with Minnesota 20-20 when Lamarr Woodley decapitated Gopher quarterback Brian Cupito. Minnesota ran a couple times with the backup quarterback, punted, and got the ball back after Michigan's drive stalled out. Stuck around their own 20 with around three minutes on the clock, Minnesota runs twice more, petrified of letting backup and redshirt freshman Tony Mortenson do anything other than hand off.

Mortenson's career numbers: 14 of 39 for 179 yards, 1 TD, 3 INTs. At the time his most extensive run had come in an 0 of 4 performance against Florida Atlantic. Since Cupito has gone out Minnesota has run six straight times. It's third and ten. Minnesota is clearly playing for overtime and will just run it off tackle and punt. An injury to Willis Barringer has forced true freshman Brandon Harrison into the free safety spot, where he pairs with true freshman Jamar Adams.

Jim Herrmann decides to put Burgess in as a down lineman in a nickel package, lines him up on the strong side of the formation, and blitzes away from Burgess. The rest is Gopher history:

Burgess ended up ten yards downfield and still couldn't get off his block, but that was not exactly his fault.

In the long run this did not matter since Michigan stumbled to 7-5 in and though they could have easily won three more games, this one included, they could easily have lost three more. Herrmann would be shipped off to the NFL after the season, clearing the way for Ron English to give everyone the wrong idea for ten games. Speaking of Jim Herrmann's failings during 2005…

9. Carr punts from the Ohio State 34

osu2005-1 osu2005-2

Leading 21-19 in the dying minutes of the 2005 Game, Michigan has a first down on the Ohio State side of the field. Two runs to bleed OSU's timeouts get nowhere. They're followed by a six-yard WR screen that uses the last OSU timeout. On fourth and four from the OSU 34, Carr brings out his kicker to do the fake-kick-actually-punt thing, which goes out of bounds at the OSU 12.

Of all the awful math-spurning things I ever saw Lloyd Carr do this was the worst. Ways in which it was a terrible idea:

  • The clock was hovering around three minutes and OSU had no timeouts. If you get the first down the game is essentially over. If you give the ball back OSU is not under any serious time pressure. Indeed, they scored and Michigan had 20 or so seconds to respond.
  • Michigan's defense had crumbled on three separate score-or-die drives earlier in the year, four if you count the one Michigan had ceded to OSU just moments ago. On each they had played soft, ensuring that when the opponent scored Michigan would have no opportunity to respond.
  • OSU was down two points and only needed a field goal.
  • The fake field goal punt was so obviously coming that OSU put a returner back. If the punt had been slightly better that guy was off to the races.
  • You spurned the opportunity to get a first down on third down for a more makeable fourth down so you could take away OSU's meaningless final time out.

Instead of taking a solid shot at ending the game, Carr chose 22 yards of field position that Michigan gave back in three plays by playing soft. I shorted out in the aftermath. Under pressure Carr reverted to the sort of call that hadn't been right since 1979 and it cost Michigan its best shot to put a dent in this agonizing OSU winning streak.

8. Pitch it to Breaston!

Michigan's attempt to replicate The Play is 15 yards from working when Tyler Ecker runs directly into a Nebraska defender on the sideline instead of pitching the ball to Steve Breaston, a man with a plan in the open field. Panama.

We end our Year of Infinite Pain trifecta with this:

I actually ended up at a tailgate that Tyler Ecker was at once, and all I could think was "why didn't you pitch it?"

jeremy-lesueur 7. Rugby punt fiasco dénouement

Michigan was really, really good in 2003. John Navarre had molted from an inept flamingo into a laser-chucking flamingo. Chris Perry made one of those senior-year explosions you always hope will happen but almost never does. Braylon Edwards announced his presence. The defense featured Marlin Jackson, Ernest Shazor before he went up in smoke, Pierre Woods before he went up in smoke, and Lawrence Reid before his back imploded. (Unsurprisingly, the yardage defense would sag from 11th to 33rd the following year.) They were good.

But it all blew up on special teams. A grad assistant named Jim Boccher was placed in charge of it; by the end of the year he'd be in real estate and (probably) therapy. Things first went poorly against Oregon. Oregon blocked an Adam Finley punt for a touchdown. A fake punt attempt ended in a fumble. Oregon returned a punt for a touchdown. Despite getting a special teams touchdown of its own on a blocked chip-shot field goal, Michigan gave away ten points on special teams in a four-point loss.

That could have been random fortune, but what happened against Iowa was not. Boccher was an eager beaver who was actually ahead of the rugby punt curve that has spread through college football; stodgy Michigan was one of the first teams to try this high school thing out. The announcers openly wondered what the heck was going on. The intervening years have proven that it's a good idea if you can do it right.

Michigan could not, and was immediately reminded of why it liked being stodgy. Iowa almost blocked a punt, then almost blocked another one, then deflected a third; Michigan was fortunate that the deflection was partial. Along the way Michigan had given up a 43-yard punt return to Ramon Ochoa that set up a nine-yard Hawkeye touchdown drive. When Rivas wandered out with five minutes left in the third quarter, the whole stadium could feel it coming, and it did: Iowa finally returned one to sender, setting up a one-yard field goal drive. Michigan lost by three despite outgaining Iowa 463-295.

Boccher sought other opportunities before Michigan fans had the opportunity to seek him; the 2003 team would go undefeated outside of games in which their special teams cost them at least ten points until meeting USC in the Rose Bowl. That was the year in which USC got booted from the title game despite being #1 in both polls; if Michigan's special teams hadn't imploded so spectacularly an undefeated Michigan would have featured in the national title game against an Oklahoma team that had just blown the Big 12 title against Kansas State; Kansas State got blown out by an OSU team that Michigan had just handled. Competency on special teams could have resulted in a national title.

Tomorrow: The top six. Wear a cup.