For various reasons, this diary is going to be low on game-specific commentary. The box score tells a pretty complete tale already; I don't think you need me to supplement the numbers to get the drift. Plus, I need a little R&R.
Worst: Our Place in the Dirt
Few lines have gotten me this excited about a movie more than Mr. Dirk Pitt intoning about the plight of the human civilization as we look to the heavens for a way to escape a dying planet before the last embers of humanity as extinguished. From what I've read about the movie, it is all about scientists discovering a wormhole that (apparently) would allow faster-than-light space travel, Earth no longer being capable of sustaining life due to the effects of cataclysmic climate change, and Dr. Larch calling upon Rust Cohle and Fantine to travel beyond the solar system in search of new, habitable planets. Throw in Christopher Nolan and some cool cinematic effects, and I am already making triple-redundant babysitter plans for opening weekend. Doesn't look like I'll be missing much in the way of relevant football then.
For decades, Michigan fans looked at every season not just with hope, but with expectations. They expected to compete for conference titles and bowl wins, to beat rivals and stay atop the college wins list. To being, for lack of a better word, good. The stars didn't always align themselves (and let's be frank, more times than not goals were equal parts hubris and idealization), but Michigan fans always had their heads up, dreaming big.
But since 2006, that hasn't been the case. Sure, there have been glimmers here and there (most of 2011, the starts of 2009, 2010, and pre-Akron 2013), but they've all been mirages, pockets of air escaping a dying husk of a collective fantasy. Michigan the football program isn't "dead", of course; it will rebuild (with a new administration and a new coach) and undoubtedly return to competitiveness on a national stage. You don't post decades of winning seasons without being able to adapt and reform, and this fallow period will most likely be an historical outlier (and not a trend) when my kids look back 32 years from now.
But I'm talking about the future, of a generation of fans who are still figuring out what "Michigan football" means to them. They'll know it for this period of struggling, but as the team improves these memories will fade away, and one day they'll look back and wonder what the hell was happening in Ann Arbor in the late 00's and early 10's, much like my generation wonders about Bump Elliott and the 60's. But this generation, the current era of fans who only know Bo and Carr and "the Streak" and spoiling OSU's perfect seasons and consistently pants-ing MSU, those memories are being buried deeper and deeper under each blowout loss and non-competitive game, under every good coaching hire in Columbus and East Lansing, and every "great" alum chiming in with his #HOTTAKE about the current team. This is our first taste of failure, and its one that will linger for years.
I'll be there cheering on Michigan in 2019 or whenever they are "legitimately" good again. When they are beating MSU and OSU, winning 9-10 games consistently, and celebrating your first touchdown in nearly 3 games doesn't break Ace. But right now I'm staring at the ground, powerless to effect change and just hoping that someone, anyone can make sense of what has happened these past 7 years and make it stop. And yeah, I'm sure they will, but it will be hard to wipe away this much dirt, this much grime with a couple more wins against Sparty and a couple of shiny TV games. It's going to take something truly significant.
Or maybe none of this matters. Maybe this is just a cycle ever team goes through, the karmic payoff for 40+ years of bowl games and #1 selling merchandise. Maybe Michigan's Circadian rhythm is just longer than everyone else's, its death and rebirth on a different timeframe than most others, and thus what feels unfortunate and untimely is right on cosmic schedule.
Worst: 11 Points
Michigan scored an offensive touchdown against MSU for the first time in 3 games, or to put into perspective, for the first time since before the world had 7 billion people on it. Excuse me for a moment.
Best (I Guess): No Hell in a Cell
You know how I know you know something about professional wrestling, dear reader? Because you've heard good Ol' J.R. announce epic dunks, huge hits, and internet fails for years now. And chances are you probably watched the original video of the Undertaker vs. Mankind in Hell in a Cell. If you haven't, here's that memorable scene.
What made this match so memorable wasn't the novelty of the cage; it had been around in a similar form for some time, most prominently as part of WCW's WarGames gimmick match. And the violence that is so easily lent to the caged environment had become far less jarring with the continued evolution and prominence of lesser-known federations such as ECW, which had co-opted the "hardcore" style previously found in Japan and (to a lesser extent) Mexico and Latin America. No, what made these early Hell in a Cell matches iconic was the escalating brutality they displayed. In the first, Shawn Michaels took a for-then rough bump to the floor, but it was still pretty controlled and "safe", basically Michaels jumping from the cage onto a free-cut table. But when the Undertaker battled Mankind, any reservations or sense of self-preservations were thrown out the window. Watch the video again, and see Mick Foley dive off that cage onto the floor. When Ross cried out that Foley was likely dead, you could hear real concern in his voice. We were still a year away from Owen Hart's tragic death during a pay-per-view making this kayfabe fear a reality, but this was still a grown fan flying off the top of a 20+ foot cage onto the concrete floor of an arena. It was both terrific theatre and terrifying spectacle, and the fact Mick Foley continues to show the lasting effects of this and other, similarly-brutal matches cannot be forgotten.
Last year's game felt like Gardner was flung from the top of the cage. We semi-joke around here about his ribs being crushed by MSU and that "breaking" him, but it was terrifying to watch and made me legitimately question whether or not referees should be allowed to pull a player for his safety. The fact Gardner kept getting up was courageous in a sense, but at some point you just wished he had stayed down and everyone just go home. But in a sad testament to the season thus far, I didn't think Gardner suffered nearly as much against a ferocious MSU front. Yes he was sacked twice and hit a half-dozen more times, but it looked like a normal 2014 game, not a life-changing evisceration on national TV. It was your typical slobberknocker between these two teams, and if we are looking for a silver lining at all, everybody seemed to leave the game with all of their bones and organs in the same general place.
Worst: So Close
This is Michigan's gameplan in a single gif. They had halfway-decent field position on a couple of drives, and moved the ball in fits and spurts. But every time they had the hint of momentum, they'd go for an ill-fated flea-flicker, or fail to execute a simple bubble screen, or just run the damn ball on 2nd-and-9 for 1 yard and waste any opportunity to keep the game close. It was infuriating, it was depressing, it was par the course for the year.
Worst: Running Gardner
I saw a number of people arguing for Gardner to be more involved in the running game, the logical argument being that while his passing wasn't working well against MSU's stout defense (13/28 for 121 with 2 picks - including on pick-6), he likely would have been more effective running the ball compared to the rest of the team (which if you squint kinda came within the ballpark of 100 yards total). And maybe in another world, with actual QB depth and a coherent offensive plan, I'd agree with you.
But we've seen the backups for UM at the QB position - Morris isn't close to running this team, and Bellomy has looked lost every time he's been asked to do anything with this team. This game was lost as soon as the two teams had the coin flip, but (in theory) Michigan has a chance to finish 6-6 and make a bowl game with very winnable games against NW, IU, and Maryland coming up. But if Gardner goes down and is replaced by either of his most-likely backups, the team might as well not get off the bus. And though I'm absolutely of the belief that Hoke should be gone, he's still being paid to win games for the University of Michigan, and he is going to make decisions that will maximize his ability to do so. That means keeping Devin Gardner as healthy as possible, and in a game where MSU was going to be teeing off on him at every opportunity, exposing Gardner to any more damage in a lost game didn't make a whole lot of sense.
Worst: Saving Timeouts
It was beyond infuriating to watch Brady Hoke allow MSU to run a good 40 seconds off the gameclock to end the half before scoring their second TD to push the game to 14-3. With MSU needing about a quarter of a yard on 3rd down, Hoke allowed MSU to run the play clock down before plunging forward for a score. Even if UM stops MSU at that point and the Spartans kick a FG, a couple TOs used there conserves clock and gives UM a chance to at least get within long FG range. But with a full complement of TOs, Hoke let the clock burn down, ran for a couple of yards on the last play of the half, and went into halftime with three timeouts and nothing to show for them.
I guess you could argue Hoke wanted to see if his defense could hold MSU without giving the Spartans a chance to consult on 3rd down, or that he didn't want to expose his beleaguered offense to another set of downs that could lead to a turnover or some other misfortune. Those are all theories with merit in a vacuum. But this is Brady Hoke and Michigan in 2014, and that this point try to win the F*CKING GAME and squeeze one more possession out of the game. You'd already gotten a couple of gifts in that first half; any shred of confidence you could hang your hat on went out the window when you basically told your offense you'd rather regroup than try to matriculate the ball down the field in a minute. Still...
Worst: Hoke is the Worst A.I. Ever
Punting on fourth and three down 25 with nine minutes left. Fucking quitter. — mgoblog (@mgoblog) October 25, 2014
This might be semantics, but I don't think Hoke is a quitter. He's (sadly) calling the game the same way in the 1st quarter as he is in the 4th quarter. He's like the worst movie version of artificial intelligence. He doesn't learn from the past, he doesn't integrate new information into his plans, he isn't becoming sentient, and he sure as hell isn't turning the world's electronics against the humans. He's a mediocre football coach who seems unwilling to break out of his gameplan to any meaningful degree, and that's why all of these losses feel the same. With a lead he's maybe willing to take a couple of chances, but when he's down its all huddling, predictable pass plays, and punting for field position. He's not trying to "look good" for his bosses or nab a "moral" victory; he's just coaching like Brady Hoke at Michigan. Now, the fact that this style resembles a guy who is over his head and failed to install anything resembling a consistent, sustainable identity is another matter.
They gave up 446 yards, 4.8 yards a rush, busted on a 70-yard TD pass, and never made life too uncomfortable for Connor Cook. At the same time, they played 29 minutes of the first half, forced a couple of turnovers to keep the game close, stopped MSU on 4th down, and for long stretches of the game looked competent despite missing a number of rotation/starters. I know the raw numbers say otherwise, but it did feel like the defense was up to the challenge of today's game, and had the offense been able to sustain anything in that first half the game might have been a bit closer. I'm not saying there would have been an upset, but for a defense that hasn't caught a break all year, the turnovers in particular were a welcome reprieve from the muck and, had they been capitalized on better, might have kept the game more competitive.
Longer-term, it doesn't really matter what Mattison and his coordinators do going forward. Like Hoke, they are gone in a couple of weeks, so complaints about coverages, line play, RPS, etc. are kinda irrelevant. I could see a world in which Nussmeier is retained due to his relative newness to the program and the expertise of the coach coming in, but Mattison is going to ride into the sunset with Hoke. He'll leave having improved Michigan's defense significantly from RR's time, but not to the level people expected after 2011 and, frankly, what was needed to keep this team competitive.
[EDIT: Put this in comments section below, figured I'd add it here for completeness]
Best: IU Defense - The Best Gift a Sport Could Give
So my daughter is celebrating her first birthday next week. Since she's been born, Michigan has basically lost every meaningful game and looked like a steaming crater of tires covered in bird shit. So that's not a good thing. But what IS a good thing is that they are playing Indiana, and with all due respect to Jamie Mac, I'm pretty excited to see Michigan get a chance to put the spurs to a bad defense for once. It won't make up for the past 12 months, but it will give me something else to smile about, and would be a perfect gift for this little Wolverine-in-training.