Pre Best and Worst: Football 2013

Pre Best and Worst: Football 2013

Submitted by bronxblue on July 29th, 2013 at 2:53 PM

What amazes me about this site is the amount of content posted during the dead of summer, when people should be, you know, outside and not worrying about the nickelback (NTN)* on passing downs.  Mind you, I say this with 100% absolute love and appreciation, as it really makes those bathroom br…er, interminable time between seasons a bit more bearable.  The only problem, if you’d call it that, is that with such great, consistent diarists like Mathlete, Six Zero, Seth, CRex, and LSAClassOf2000 (and I’m sure to be missing others, so my apologies in advance), it makes it tough for people without advanced knowledge of mathematics, drawing skills, or hilarious fish-out-of-water tales to think of anything useful to post.  Luckily, I’m here to post random thoughts on football without any of those messy facts, charts, or thoughtful analysis that bogs down everyone else.  But I will definitely make consistent references to late 80’s/early 90’s pop culture, because nothing draws eyeballs like Battletoads puns.

And let it be known that I have yet to receive my copy of HTTV (available now for ordering if you are a horrible person who didn’t love Brian enough to sponsor his Kickstarter because you spent all of your money on funding a Deathstar), so if anything happens to overlap that is purely coincidental.  So no need for a spoiler alert, but perhaps a didn’t-mean-to-tap-into-the-hivemind-alert.  Also, this is not exhaustive – I don’t have the knowledge of football that other writers here possess, so me saying “Lewan is really good and Mattison knows how to coach” isn’t going to be ground-breaking; I’m going for a “key points” approach here.  So without further ado, I bring you a preseason Best and Worst for Michigan (and college in general) football in 2013.

* I’m not a fan of all Nickelback songs, but that is one awesome movie tie-in song!

Best:  Finally the focus is on actual football

While it is undeniable that college sports drive a multi-billion-dollar industry (but don’t tell EA that), the actual seasons for football and basketball are about 4 months each, with only a bit of overlap.  So after the first week of January and/or the first week of April, the “official” engine driving the gravy train for network and cable television, websites, merchandisers, etc. shuts down for about 8 months.  Unfortunately, there are still 24 hours a day that need to be filled with something, whether it be talking heads arguing over “issues” and obscure hypotheticals, former athletes pontificating on the need to have “played the game” to really understand why throwing on 3rd-and-12 is the right call, or scanning the police blotter in every college town to see if the Ven diagram of college kids getting drunk and/or fighting and college football/basketball players intersects.

So when the football season ends, the focus immediately turns to NSD, wherein a bunch of grown men’s and women’s emotions wax and wane according to the whims of high-schoolers participating in very weird hat dances.

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One of these is awesome, one is insanely awesome, and one is Denard rocking a great look.

March is dominated by commercials for Southwest Airlines and Capital One credit cards with a dusting of basketball sprinkled in, and just when that madness ends, we get inundated with draft combine reports and the respective NBA and NFL drafts.  And as the weather gets warmer, you finally think “self, what else can they report about?  Kids are not even in school; at most they will be some puff pieces about charity work and new coaches getting used to a particular school.”  But no, you are instead bombarded with stories about kids slacking off, whether or not a former coach is somehow partially responsible for a suspected murderer because the Program actually happens IRL, and old men talking about “big changes” that will only make things more convoluted and disjointed as sports go full Voltron with super-conferences and paychecks. 

I guess my point is that in a few short weeks, fans of college football will actually be able to celebrate the sport itself, even if the depressing accoutrement isn’t going anywhere.  Those recruits will now be in the lineup (or at least at practice), the returning players will be settling into their roles, and all of the coach-speak/playbook prognostications/expectations will manifest themselves in an actual product on the field.  The silly season is over; bring on the games.

Worst:  Addition + Subtraction != Reality

One of the common refrains I’ve read recently about the upcoming season is the old “addition by subtraction” on offense as Gardner takes over for Robinson at QB.  As the thinking goes, the loss of Robinson and his career 10,776 yards of offense will be  mitigated by Devin’s superior throwing ability and a more balanced, Al Borges-friendly offensive system. 

This phrase has always driven me crazy, if for no other reason than football doesn’t work like math.  A football team is comprised of innumerable players, coaches, opponents, etc.; we’re talking thousands of meaningful variables.  Change one and you might have a major effect on the system, but the far more likely outcome is that nothing demonstrably happens or, worse, the output is worse.  And it’s this last scenario that really scares me about losing Denard and installing Devin at QB full-time.

Just because you’ll be able to shove a slightly less misshapen peg into an ever-changing hole doesn’t mean the entire enterprise, or even a component like the offense, will function better a year later.  Other than Jeremy Gallon’s mountain goat imitation and The Threat keeping the chains moving, the passing attack is long on potential and short on real results (I believe Funchess will have a solid year catching the ball, but when you can’t block at UM you aren’t going to be on the field much).  Fitz’s recovery sounds promising but will he be the guy who ran for 5.6 ypc in 2011 or struggled to break 4 in 2012?  I don’t know, and while there is guru-approved talent in the backfield (Green and Smith) and is a position where young talent can flourish, nobody with shoelaces has been able to consistently gain yardage on the ground for years now.  And while in years past defenses had to respect the ability of UM’s QB/RB/WR/braided decoy to bust a massive run, Devin isn’t that type of player and defenses will treat him (and by extension this offense) accordingly. 

Of course, Devin isn’t the perfect Al Borges QB either, but in theory he’ll be better able to throw downfield accurately and COMPLETELY IGNORE ANY TYPE OF SCREEN PASSES, amongst other things.  Call me skeptical, but I still see this offense living and dying with the line giving whoever lines up at RB the time and space necessary to get into the second level.  Protecting Devin will definitely help as well, but he’s enough of an athlete to buy himself some time on obvious passing downs if necessary; limiting the number of times he lines needing 8+ yards for a first because they tried this twice would be great.

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Unleashing the dragon is not officially endorsed by Al Borges, but he’s not officially against it either.

Best:  The Flying V

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One of my favorite movies growing up was D2: The Mighty Ducks, the sequel to, I don’t know, the Joshua  Jackson vehicle The Mighty Ducks.  It’s 100% crap if you watch it critically; rampant product placement, jingoism and mindless flag-waving up the wazoo, and the most lax enforcement of international junior hockey rules known to man (seriously, the team adds players to the squad midway through the tournament by signing them up after a street hockey game).  But by gawd, 13-year-old me loved this movie so much, and mostly because the creators pulled the comic book staple of expanding the Might Ducks universe by introducing new characters with exactly one “secret/mutant” power/character trait.  Now you had the super-tough guy Dean to team up with Fulton (himself mostly known for his rocket shot) to make the Bash Brothers.  Julie “The Cat”, with her lightning-quick reflexes, could even defend the previously-unstoppable triple deke.  Luis Mendoza was the fastest guy the ice had ever seen, but couldn’t stop to save his life.  And I guess to fill out the roster they added a cowboy (Dwayne) and the aforementioned street hockey star Russ (more on him later).

So why does this matter?  Well, for a couple of years now, the RB situation at UM always left like a cut-rate casting of the Ducks, with guys trying to fill in the “power”, “speed”, “every down”, etc. roles but with limited success.  They played hard and, at times, could fill in their roles admirably, but it should trouble people that even with Fitz’s decent 2011 season and barely playing his first year, Denard accounted for 42% of the team’s total rushing yards during his career.  In virtually every circumstance, he was the best/only real option to move the ball on the ground, whether it be in short-yardage, designed first-down runs, even catching out of the backfield toward the end of last season. 

This year, it feels like the situation will be improved if for no other reason than the talent in the backfield is significantly better than in years past.  Even coming back from injury I expect Toussaint to be better than he was last season, and if he can’t line up full-time in the backfield is still a great change-of-pace back with (I hope) the elusiveness and phone-booth shiftiness everyone saw a couple of years ago.  Green and Smith were some of the top RB recruits in the nation last year, and both look capable of running the ball 20-25 times a game if needed.  Shallman and Kerridge should be able to provide some power in short yardage (I guess Rawls could improve here as well but who knows) and, in Shallman’s case, maybe a bit more in the open field.  Guys like Hayes and Johnson look like situational backs who could move into the slot in certain formations and cause issues against LBs and Safeties.  And to both make Brian happy as well as wedge in the reference that drove me to shoehorn the RB situation into this horrible analogy, Norfleet is the ultimate Knuckle-puck and a player I expect will help immensely in the return game if nothing else.

Getting yards on the ground still relies immensely on the guards and center blocking FAR better than they did last year, but it finally feels like the backfield could whip out a flying V of talent. 

Worst:  Where’d the “Gimmick” Go?

With Denard gone and Devin and co. clearly moving toward a more “classic” offense philosophy, I’m having to come to grips with the fact that the atypical elements of this team are rapidly disappearing.  It always drove me crazy when people would call the spread option a “gimmick” offense, because last time I checked the goal was to score points as frequently as possible by maximizing your strengths and exploiting the weaknesses of your opponent.  It wasn’t THAT long ago that people viewed the forward pass as (at best) a fad and (at worst) an affront to the game that killed 18 people and injured 100s, and even the multiple-receiving TE craze of recent years was scoffed at when it was first introduced.  It’s an offense that clearly works in college, and the flexibility it gave in terms of play-calling helped make UM stand out a bit compared to the Big Ten-ness of offenses at outfits like Iowa, Wisconsin, and MSU. 

While Al Borges’s offense looks to move the ball far better than other teams in the conference and should feature a fair number of wrinkles, the designed QB runs, unpredictable formations, and Worst Waldo Ever are probably relics of the past. 

Worst:  Stupid Elephant

perrycolor

Even though UM won’t be seeing Purdue until 2017 doesn’t mean that the Boilermakers couldn’t dramatically affect UM’s season as they unleashed Perry, clumsiness elephant in the world upon Jake Ryan and his precious ligaments.  Though it sounds like he’ll be back in time for most of the conference slate, he’ll likely just be getting his conditioning and game-speed bearings when the meat of the schedule (@MSU, Nebraska, @NW, @Iowa, OSU) kicks in.  Mattison Uber Alles and all that, but its going to be interesting to see how this defense responds without their leading tackler (88 total tackles) and pressure generator (team-leading 4.5 sacks).  Let’s hope the hype around Clark, Ojemudia, and Washington is for real, because that line is going to have to generate a significantly better pass rush.  You can only blitz so many times before good offenses figure out how to exploit those holes, and UM’s corners simply aren’t experienced/good enough right now to play on islands (though I do think they’ll be good). 

And an aside: having recently had a birthday and solidly entering my early 30’s, I am definitely feeling my age when it comes to minor injuries.  Whereas in years past running a couple extra miles or tweaking a muscle lifting took all of a day to recover from, now I’m limping around like I’ve got shrapnel in my ankle if I don’t stretch 10 minutes before jogging.  So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that 20-something-year-olds can bounce back from these injuries in record-breaking time.  It just blows my mind that Ryan will see the field 7 months after this injury.  Heck, when Timmy’s Dad came back from his ACL injury and was a reasonable approximation of the player he was before, people thought it was a miracle.

You Decide:  The (Near) End of an Era

I apologize to the mother of the equine that is about to be bludgeoned again, but we are rapidly nearing the end of the Rodriguez regime’s influence on Michigan football.  While RR coached his last game on the UM sideline on January 1, 2011, the long tail from recruiting, player development, and (minor) cultural impact is still affecting Hoke’s regime years later.  That’s the thing about coaching changes; the head guy may leave his office in a single day, but the fallout from his time at the helm literally remains for years.  And we all know how it feels when a guy just lingers.

(* Full Disclosure: I remain a staunch believer that RR’s tenure at UM could have turned out quite differently if a handful of about eleventy billion things had gone differently.  Your mileage with him will likely vary, but the guy who recruited Lewan, Denard, Gardner, Fitz, Ryan, etc. and obliterated a number of school records – admittedly both good and bad – could have worked in Ann Arbor.

While we have seen some players from his regime leave in the past, the transition from last year’s squad to this year really feels like the first natural “purge” of RR’s most prominent players.  The kids who left in 2013 were the first full RR class to matriculate, the kids who signed up after the 3-9 season and survived immense negative karma that welcomed them to campus, Stretchgate, the losing seasons, the Process, and, finally, some redemption

The two names that I suspect stick out for most MGoBloggers are Denard and Kovacs; the Alpha and Omega that embodied the dichotomy and extreme variance that was a hallmark of the Rodriguez years.*  Denard was the scintillating maestro of an offense that could be maddening for fans and opponents alike.  At his peak, Denard was the most exciting player Michigan had fielded in a generation; his two transcendent games against ND rank up there with Biakabutuka against OSU, Braylon’s new Math, Chris Perry’s marathon versus MSU, Mercury Hayes leading the comeback against UVa, and a slew of performances by Woodson, Wheatley, and Hart.  His flaws were well-documented (mediocre passer, injured, the sometimes-victim of being the best option on every play), but when he was on he gave fans the feeling of having the “ringer” in a game; of having the guy who was so much better than everyone else that it didn’t seem fair.

If Denard was the quintessential spread QB recruit, Jordan Kovacs epitomized the other mythos of Rich Rodriguez: gritty walk-on makes good.  Sure, if you read his Wikipedia page the story feels incredibly predictable, but at the time I doubt anyone expected the kid with a single preferred walk-on offer at Toledo (yes, that Toledo) would become a team MVP and leave this program as one of the better safeties in its history.  He just made plays, and I’ll admit that my testicles will probably retract a bit the first time someone goes deep on Michigan this year.  I suspect Gordon will slide in adequately enough, but you don’t replace a mult-time conference award winner easily, regardless of the story told in getting him on the field. 

This season will only accelerate the exodus of The Last Guy’s recruits, and while I am exceedingly happy about The Current Guy’s performance, it is still a bit sad to see some of the standard-bearers of this important era in Michigan’s history move on.

* You could also make a case for BWC, the biggest “can’t miss” prospect that flamed out under RR and only recovered under the steady hand of Hoke and Co.  Because if there was a third defining element to the RR era, it was big-name prospects (Tate, Cullen, Cissoko, etc.) failing to live up to expectations.

Best:  The Gap is Shortening

Of all the systemic and natural advantages certain programs have – coaching stability, location, tradition, money, SEC-ness – probably the most important to sustained success is player development & talent replenishment.  The reason programs like Alabama, LSU, Stanford, Oregon, OSU, etc. have been successful recently is that the depth charts usually remain pretty flush with talent year over year.  Sure, you’ll see holes pop up here and there as recruits flame out or unexpected attrition occur, but for the most part good teams stay that way because when you graduate one all-conference performer there’s usually a guy or two behind him to fill in those shoes. 

If you take a look at the unofficial depth chart, you’ll notice there’s this massive wall of players for 2016 and 2017 crumbling to a handful of 2013 starters and regular contributors.  This drop is less precarious on the defensive side than the offense, which makes sense given the coaching staff’s composition and their early focus when they took over, but it highlights the “blue-bloods”/“first-world problems” meme you see thrown around with consistently-great teams that, once upon a time, included UM. 

A common refrain you hear from programs like Texas, OSU, UM, Alabama, OU, Oregon, etc. is that if they aren’t winning the conference and playing for the MNC/major bowl game, the season is a “disappointment” even if they win 9+ games.  This inevitably drives other, less consistently successful teams crazy because it reeks of  entitlement and a sense of superiority.  While that is probably a part of it, the bigger reason is that these teams know they are so superior in talent compared to most of their competition that the band of variance for their season is relatively narrow; they’ll rarely lose more than 2-3 games a season because they probably only play 3-4 teams with comparable talent a year.  Even with the odd upset, they’re not worried about making a bowl game or having a winning record unless something cataclysmic happens.  Because they have depth, the natural ebb and flow from injuries and departures year-to-year is muted; the whole “we don’t rebuild, we just reload” refrain.  That was never true under RR (I get into the lasting influence of his tenure below), and the later Carr years had their fair share of talent gaps that culminated in the Horror and the aftermath. 

Hoke is obviously doing a great job replenishing the cupboard with top-notch talent, and I suspect that in a year or two the expectations for UM will return to their lofty heights.  But if anyone thinks that there won’t be quite a few true/RS freshmen playing meaningful minutes this year, you’re going to be surprised.  8-5 is just as likely as 11-2 despite the seeming upward trajectory of the team in recent years.

Best:  And in a Hurry!

This is a late addition given the events of the BBQ, but by gawd Hoke is doing work when it comes to skill position players, which was the last “real” concern people had regarding his recruiting acumen.  In hindsight, his early focus on linemen and depth makes sense since a Denard-led offense should be able to score a reasonable number of points to hide many deficiencies on that side of the ball.  But having already picked up some of the best RBs and WRs in last year’s class, he wasted no time grabbing some of the best WR, RB, and DB players early on for 2015.  This won’t totally mitigate that gap between upperclassmen and the rest of the depth chart, but Hoke and co. are going to do their best to eradicate that issue with overwhelming force.

Best:  We want people to pass?

After living through the weekly carpet-bombing by 5x Heisman Trophy winners like Ben Chappell, Scott Tolzien, and Chris Relf, the last thing I’d thought I’d be saying a couple years later is that the secondary looks like, if not a strength, at least an adequate part of the defense this year and one of the strengths of the team going forward.  Taylor impressed me as the chief replacement for Countess after his own ACL injury (damn you Perry!), and veterans like Avery and camp surprise Hollowell should help fill in the gaps and limit the reliance on the younger talent.  There definitely isn’t a Woodson, Hall, or Jackson in the backfield, but the corners should be able to stick with enough receivers on the schedule that teams will have to at least earn those long completions.

Best/Worst:  Come On B1G

It has been discussed on this board many times before, but looking around the conference I’m not seeing any teams poised to make the leap up in competition.  On one hand this should make UM fans happy; the Big 2, Little 10 situation pumps up the win totals.  At the same time, when the third best team is either an in-transition Wiscy, a sanctioned PSU, or a meh MSU, it doesn’t speak highly of the strength of the conference and how it will be perceived when bowl selection and rankings roll around.  I expect MSU’s defense to be one of the stronger units in the nation and for Wiscy and NW to continue to exceed their talent level, but you’d hope that “better than expected” wouldn’t be the ceiling for over half the teams in the conference. 

So that’s it.  Comment away below if you got this far, and tell me where I screwed up.  I’m sure I did somewhere.  John Navarre’s still the QB, right?  Go Blue!

Best and Worst: OSU

Best and Worst: OSU

Submitted by bronxblue on November 24th, 2012 at 9:22 PM

Note:  I usually try to incorporate the other Diaries in this post, but I’m kind of on a tight time crunch and just want to get this out.  As always, please read the rest of the Diaries for thoughtful analysis, unique viewpoints, and photoshopped goodness.  Me thinks there might be some good stuff after this game.

So, yeah.  This is going to be shorter than past editions because, whatever man… 

Best:  “The Ohio State fans are a special people.  Once a Buckeye, always a Buckeye”

That quote, uttered by noted Ohio State booster…er objective ESPN color commentator Chris Spielman, perfectly encapsulates how surreal today was for a non-Buckeye.  During today’s game, Jim Tressel, noted disciplinarian and legal scholar, was honored along with the rest of his 2002 National Championship team. This, of course, was the team that featured a mercurial but talented freshman RB Maurice Clarett, who led the Buckeyes in rushing that season and also scored the title-winning TD in overtime against Miami.  The whole gang was back, to give the OSU faithful one more opportunity to cheer on a myth, a delusion about its history that seems painfully obvious to everyone not wearing crimson and grey. 

So between the first and second quarters of the final game the 2012 Buckeyes will play, a premature finale caused by Mr. Tressel’s behavior during his years in Columbus, the fans in attendance gave him a standing ovation, one of the biggest cheers of the day.  All the while, the athletics department and the greater school, with nary a hint of irony, trumpeted his return as a conquering hero of sorts.  The narrative went, at least in some circles, that most schools would have done the same, that fans love to cheer on winners and that most of those players were completely above board and played fairly, won every game that season, and, let’s be honest, Miami was no saint either.  The thinking went that this was a team that the school should be proud of, or at least should be able to recognize publicly.

Now, I’m trying my best to stay off the soapbox, so I’ll keep this brief.  Not all schools would be so quick to celebrate past athletic accomplishments tainted by violations.  The next Steve Fisher Appreciation Night at Crisler will be the first, and Brian has been very clear about his feelings toward Louis “seriously, he can die in a fire for all I care” Bullock and the rest of that brood. 

But more than some relativistic moral high ground that some UM fans want to take with OSU, the fact remains that the Buckeye fanbase IS special.  It drove one of its more prominent alums out of the state, put a bounty out on high school kid who dared to change his commitment, and it has trouble with its emotions.  It is a fan base seemingly always on the wrong side of razor’s edge that is fandom, crystallized in a ceremony memorializing the man who gave them one tainted undefeated season while sullying the next one as well.  O-H-I-O, indeed.

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Best:  MGoMeltdowns are awesome

So as is the custom around these parts, the traffic to the site after a loss follows the same trajectory as general internet traffic does whenever illicit pictures of some starlet are “leaked” to the the web totally-unexpectedly-but-right-before-my-new-movie-Crushed Blue Velvet Girlfriend 2-is-released.  For a graphical representation, here is a screenshot of the site about 4 minutes after the game ended

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Click for full size

It will never approach RCMB or anything in the SEC not related to Vandy, but TWO redundant posts sarcastically “thanking” the coaches for losing the game, one out-and-out “Fire Borges” thread and one claiming he merely “sucked”, one thread already set for deletion, and about 1,100 posts in a game thread, 50% of them berating Al Borges and the team for a poor second half, is nothing to sneeze at.  Subsequent posts included petitions to fire Al Borges, a couple crying out for sanity, and one inferring a discussion about iCarly and Larry Hagman that felt appropriate for an 8th-grader’s “MySpace” profile.  Then Ace showed up with his usual quality summary and solid reasoning, which is like, Booo this man!

So why is this a “Best”?  Because this outpouring feels organic and based on real concerns.  During the RR era, people used to freak out after wins OR losses, calling for guys’ heads and questioning everyone’s credentials from the water boy on up.  It was an anger born from desperation and confusion, watching a once-proud program flail about on the field for 3 hours every Saturday.  But with this team, the complaints are natural, as people know what Michigan is and what they aren’t, and the reasons behind those limitations are real.  It’s sobering to see the cracks in this team both today and going forward, but at least they aren’t obfuscated by a general malaise.

Worst:  The Blame Game

Since time immemorial fans have complained about offensive coordinators at UM; in my lifetime, I don’t remember a single OC who left the program without being singed pretty badly on the way out.  DC’s tend to get off cleaner, at least in part because defensive playcalling feels “harder” to dissect than offensive sets.  It probably is a combination of the reactive nature of defense versus the active nature of offense, fans being trained to focus more on the ball than anything else on the field, and the reality that, with few exceptions, offensive players are more prominent, their successes and failures more memorable than their defensive counterparts.  And as the puppet master, the general leading that side onto the field, the offensive coordinator naturally takes on a prominent, public-facing role that invites criticism.

Al Borges called a good first half of football against OSU and between a predictable (best case) and atrocious (worst case) second half.  Of course, he probably doesn’t deserve as much credit as he’ll get for the first half nor as much blame for the cratering in the second half.  Denard’s end-of-quarter 67-yard TD run was all about a playmaker taking advantage of poor tackling technique by OSU and making a play with the ball.  In the second half, he wasn’t the reason Devin fumbled the ball deep in UM’s territory, nor the line’s continued inability to get any type of push up the middle. 

So yes, the offense failed to do much in the second half against an aggressive but beatable defense.  And while it did reasonably well in terms of points in the first half, two of those TDs were on plays that benefitted as much from OSU mistakes as UM’s offensive playcalling.  I already discussed Denard’s run benefitting from the GERG-approved “bump the runner, but hard” tackling technique.  The muffed punt by Brown gave UM great field positioning, and they cashed in after OSU again bailed them out with a roughing the passer penalty on 3rd down.  The pass to Roundtree was a decent playcall but morphed from first-down yardage to TD because of a stiff-arm and some blown coverage.  At no point today did the offense feel particularly well-tuned, and toward the end the playcalling devolved to a single index card with “throw the ball” scribbled on it with blue crayon. 

For better or for worse, this game was a microcosm of what Al Borges brings to UM.  As I have said for months, echoing others both here and in the greater blogosphere, he is not the type of OC who is willing/capable of drastically altering his gameplan within a game, and only sparingly between games.  It was clear after the first game of the year that he has an offense in mind with the players he has, and outside of massive injuries to key players that won’t change. 

He’s Teddy KGB, and his tell was nakedly obvious to everyone who watched this game, and really, the past two seasons.  He’ll win his fair share of hands because the cards dealt to him dictate so, but he’s had two seasons to show the UM faithful that he is better than statistics and flops and hasn’t come close to proving otherwise. 

Worst:  Loyalty

One of the chief complaints people had during the Rich Rodriguez era was the blind loyalty he showed to certain members of his staff, often at odds with their performance on the field.  The name “Tony Gibson” remains a bad word on certain message boards, and at various times Bruce Tall and Jay Hopson came under fire for their ineffective coaching.  Yet despite fielding horrific defenses and offensive units that were “unpredictable” at best for long stretches of his tenure, RR kept these coaches around because they had come up with him and thus deserved his loyalty, like a successful athlete who finances a cadre of family and friends because he had history with them.  And that, as much as the recruiting misses, the weak performances in big games, the caustic media environment, and the losing, was the reason he failed at UM.

So when Brady Hoke arrived at UM, after all of the memorable quotes and wins, one message you kept hearing was his loyalty.  He loved this program, he loved this school, and he respected the coaches that worked with him.  The 11 wins masked some of the issues that became more prominent this year, previously hidden behind unsustainable fumble recovery rates and last-second heroics.  The offense has struggled mightily all year, with the line unable to consistently open lanes for running backs, who then seem unable to produce any additional yards beyond those made available by play design and blocking.  The passing game has proven more proficient as the season progressed, but that seems to have been due as much due to poor defenses as any growth brought on by better play-calling and maturation.  Punt returns remain an issue for special teams, as does blocking on kick-offs, but that may be as easy as adopting a couple different formations and getting someone back there who won’t let the ball bounce 20 yards after it touches the ground.

The defense has been statistically spectacular and functionally solid.  Mattison has been able to generate solid play at all three levels despite a dearth of experience and/or talent at those positions, but the secondary remains questionable outside of Kovacs and the line could not hold up as the game progressed, being gashed consistently by Hyde in the 4th quarter.  But those feel like correctable issues with recruiting, and the advancements already made for a unit that 2 years ago was one of the worst in the nation provide hope.

I am not advocating wholesale changes of the staff, but it will be a test of Brady Hoke’s loyalty to see what happens after the bowl game.  RR seemingly picked loyalty to his coaches over winning*, and it cost him.  We’ll see if Hoke believes that these men can fix the problems before them and move on, or if his loyalty to UM leads him to shake up the staff.

*I know this is reductive to an extent, but I honestly believe changes to the staff could have saved him in his second and third years.

Worst:  The Wall

This game was like the meanest 13-year-olds you’ll ever meet, because it rudely highlighted the season-long inability of this squad to run the ball with anyone not named Denard.  Lewan struggled for swaths of the game, highlighted by Adolphus Washington strip-sacking Gardner on UM’s opening drive.  Thomas Rawls had 3 yards on 5 carries, highlighted by 1 and 2-yard runs on first down.  On twelve rushes in the second half, UM totaled 23 yards for 1.9 yds/c, and  that includes a fumble and two instances where UM got 0 yards on short third- and fourth-down runs.  Beyond this game, Fitz had rushing averages of 1.1 (Purdue), 3.4 (Illinois), and 0.9 (Air Force), and failed to break 100 yards all season before his injury, a year after recording 5.  With Lewan likely leaving, talented but young recruits on the line probably not quite ready to start, and Denard and his 3 1,000 yard seasons graduating, it remains a mystery how this team will move the ball on the ground at all next year.

Best:  Denard

It’s been said already, but Denard once again left everyone breathless.  People will probably remember the 67-yard TD run, but he also had an amazing 30-yard run on UM’s first drive, and finished with 122 yards on 10 carries.  He definitely struggled in the second half with a fumble and less than 10 yards on 4 carries, and there were signs that he might have been injured after that early fumble.  Regardless, he scored his 6th career TD against OSU, and showed continued leadership and support for this team in whatever capacity he was asked.  And while it does appear that it may take a fresh set of eyes to use him to the best of his abilities, he leaves UM as an all-time great both on and off the field.

Worst:  Fun with Flags

Per usual, the Big Ten referees were out in full force, throwing 14 flags for around 130 yards.  The customary WTF Call of the Week Award(TM) goes to the atrocious offensive PI on Roy Roundtree that even stopped Chris Spielman, but this game also featured a couple of personal fouls and a couple of missed calls, including the Norfleet facemask penalty on an OSU punt return that even Dennis thought was going to be called given how frequently he kept looking at the ref as he ran off the field.  It was a chippy game, but one due less to players making solid, hard-hitting plays as much as stupid block-in-the-back penalties and out-of-bound hits 2-3 yards into the sideline.  It felt like a MSU-UM game, and both of these teams should be better than that.

Best:  Devin, the Defense, and the Future

Despite his struggles holding onto the ball and that bad interception to effectively end the game, I thought Gardner played reasonably well.  He was under near-constant pressure all game (4 sacks), and had no running game to support him in the second half.  11-20 with a TD and an INT are decent numbers in only your 4th game of the season at QB and the first “real” road game (Minny barely counts as a football team given how they ended the season).  Roy Roundtree also had a nice finishing game against OSU, highlighted of course by that 75-yard TD, while Gallon continued his sneaky-good season with 67 more yards.  Both of these guys came on strong to end the season, and I think Gallon will have a fine senior year.

Now, you’d think after giving up 20 points in the first half the defense would be in for a Worst, but they held tough in the second half despite being on the field seemingly the whole time, only giving up 6 points (3 after a turnover that gave OSU the ball on the UM 10 yard line) and forcing a fumble.  The line largely held until the 4th quarter, when Hyde and co. started to gash them inside.  Mattison devised a defense that limited Miller to one 42-yard scramble but also sacked him 4 times.  Miller had a good day passing the ball, but he noticeably slowed down the second half and, frankly, he remains far less dangerous with his arm than with his legs.  It wasn’t a dominant performance by any means, and the corners were still unable to stay with OSU’s receivers at times, but it played well enough to win. 

Will Campbell finished with 10 tackles, and the LBs all played reasonably well.  Frank Clark had a bone-shattering sack on Miller in the first half and recovered a fumble caused by JMFR in the 4th to give the team a chance.  The future looks bright for this unit, and it will be interesting to see how they play at the bowl game after a month to prepare and next season firmly in view.

Best:  In the Wild

So on Wednesday, I attended the UM-Pitt basketball game at MSG with BronxBlueWife (BBW, for short, though not really in any way), and obviously wanted to support the team and rock the Maize and Blue.  But as someone who graduated college about a decade ago, those old Steve & Barry t-shirts are starting to fall apart, and I haven’t been back to replenish the stock recently.  But then I remembered that I DID have a shirt with the appropriate color scheme, fit, and yes you know where this is going…

IMG_3063

Yes, that’s BronxBlue rocking the smedium t-shirt (stupid dryer).  And yes, I am married, gainfully employed, and the owner of an automobile and a 401k.  Also, apparently, a 4.2-head and an 8-year-old haircut.  But these shirts do exist in the wild and are worn non-ironically.  And as you can see, seats were VERY available.

******

So maybe outside of the bowl game, this will be it for my weekly recaps of games.  I’m not knowledgeable enough of a basketball fan to really dissect the game in a meaningful way, and there are so many games that even short recaps would take quite a bit of time.  I might knock one out before the conference season starts if anything eventful plays out, and maybe after a marquee game or two.  But thanks to everyone who read through my rants and leaving comments.  Go Blue!

Best and Worst: Iowa

Best and Worst: Iowa

Submitted by bronxblue on November 18th, 2012 at 9:03 PM

Quick note – this got a little long.  Not sure what got into me.  Feel free to stick around.

So you’ve cried over the Haikus, seen the animated gifs, and read the numerous odes to the seniors as they leave UM.  And it probably got a little dusty in whatever room you were sitting in when man-hugs were being doled out on the field.

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mvictors.com

And at the end of the day, UM was victorious on Senior Day, most of the seniors had their moments to shine, and the banner was raised for the last time in 2012. 

 

Best:  Those Who Came and Stayed Will Always Be Champions

I know that everyone has talked up last year’s seniors as epitomizing Bo’s “Stay and Be Champions” motto, but I’ve always felt this Senior class has been given a short shrift considering the environment that existed when they decided to come to UM.  The 2011 class came to UM with a fair bit of uncertainty, what with a coaching change and a shift in offensive and defensive systems, but they all arrived on campus in a world where UM hadn’t missed a bowl game since Nixon was in office and had only one .500 record over that span.  Like everyone, they figured UM would, at worst, suffer through a “down” season of 8 wins before challenging for more titles.

But we all know how that played out.  And not only did the team struggle on the field, but off it players questioned Rich Rodriguez’s leadership and allegations of improprieties bubbled up before the season.  Their reality was a program coming off the worst season in their history, with an embattled coach and a media ready to burn him at the stake.  Few offensive and defensive stars could be found on the roster, highlighted by the fact that UM had two players taken in the 2009 draft and 3 in 2010, with one of them being a punting Space Emperor.

And yet, these kids showed up and played through another bowl-less year.  They watched as the vultures started to circle RR and his staff, saw the defense continue to flail even as the offense finally started to come around.  They fought to make a bowl game in 2010 even though it probably wasn’t enough to save their coach, and when he was replaced with Brady Hoke seemingly all of them accepted him with open arms, unlike the cooler reception received by RR in 2008.  The cries of lost values and playing time were never heard and probably were never uttered; these kids came to play for Michigan and represent the University as best they could.  By their words and deeds, they exceeded this bar immeasurably.

Now, I’m probably waxing too poetic about college kids; I’m sure that part of the silence is due to tighter controls inside the Fort, and I’d be foolish to ignore that some kids did transfer away from the school for reasons that probably had to do with playing time and classroom performance.  But from Robinson to Kovacs, Roundtree to Campbell, this was a team of star-crossed recruits who signed up for a wounded program and rehabilitated it in 4 short years.  They deserved to leave Michigan stadium the way they entered; winners and champions.

 

Best:  The Food Court

 

Most people don’t realize just ingrained food courts have become to everyday life in America, as the advent of malls and massive shopping centers, increased air travel, and cross-country road trips created a necessity for centralized food stops that were both inexpensive as well as diverse so as to satisfy the disparate palates that frequented them.  The classic food court tends to feature a name-brand burger joint like McDonald’s or Burger King, a Chinese food restaurant with a faintly-racist and/or suggestive name like “Fook Hing”, an “authentic” pizza place like Sbarro, an overpriced juice place for the “hippies”, a restaurant featuring the native cuisine of a country you’ve probably run roughshod through in Call of Duty, and a cookie depot for dessert.  Of course, over the years these areas have evolved and adapted to different clientele and needs, so now you might find a decent sushi joint, a Kosher deli, or a shrunk-down version of a sit-down restaurant like T.G.I. Fridays or Shenanigans.  But regardless of how they are constituted, the food court symbolizes options and a bit of gastronomical sanctuary in times of need.

So what does this have to do with Michigan football, you ask in your inner voice that probably sounds like Fred Savage?  One of the memes of the past two years on this site is the Borges-Denard Fusion Cuisine that the offense has been forced to take on given the constraints and abilities of the parties involved.  Logic goes that when you have an OC who loves a West Coast-style offense and he inherits a dynamic offensive player who is far better with his feet in the open field than standing tall inside a pocket, you try to meld the best of both to form an unstoppable offensive Frankenstein, but instead churn out an overcooked Turducken.  You run the read-option while also trying to establish the run with the Pro set and I-form, you encourage the QB to scramble but also throw inside NFL windows between defenders, and you both fall back on the realization that with few exceptions, your guy is faster, more elusive, and plain “better” than the 20-year-olds trying to tackle him.  And this works, most of the time.

The problem with the Cuisine characterization, though, is that it always revolved around a central, core element, one that remains the throughline across every down and dish.  With Michigan, it’s always been about Denard Robinson, because since the day he stepped on campus he’s been the best offensive player on the team.  During his tenure, his two best teammates on that side of the ball have been a center and a left-tackle, and it hasn’t been close.  But “Denard” isn’t an offensive philosophy; it’s a “Break in Cast of Emergency” valve that kept this team afloat during the end of RR’s tenure as well as the beginning of Hoke’s. 

A complete offense, one that Al Borges knows how to coach, requires options; he needs to be able to run the ball inside the tackles AND throw downfield, get a consistent push upfront to soften up the defense so that they bite on play-action, and hit the mid-distance passes to TEs as they are trailed by outmanned LBs and undersized safeties. He needs options and variety in order to dictate the flow of the game and adapt to what the defense is doing in response.  In other words, he needs to be able to pick sushi one series, then throw our Gyros the next, followed by a Jamba Juice on third down.  With Denard, the options always appeared more voluminous on paper than in practice, and it led to sub-optimal results when opposing defenses were able to slow down the preferred playcalls. 

With Devin under center, that go-to “Denard” package is gone but it’s replaced with a more complete offense that, for better or for worse, largely relies on the rest of the team performing their duties or else the play is broken.  Sure, Devin can still make something out of nothing when needed, but it’s also an offense that works like offenses of old, plus a few wrinkles like the always-effective, sparingly-used Fritz formation (THAT’s how you throw a screen).  It grinds teams down through the air and ground, and given the cast of characters out there that is pretty impressive.  In short, it’s an offense versus a playset, and while it pains me that Denard had to be injured for this to be occur, I think the offense (and the team) both this year and going forward are better for this maturation.  The food court may have lost its signature restaurant, but the whole experience is a bit more filling when you are looking for something different.

 

Best:  Keeping the Fritz running

I’m sure that Brian and others will go into greater detail, but I can’t get over how terrifying the Fritz/Diamond/DC bowel cleanser offense looks in select bursts.  Any time that Denard and Gardner ran toward one side of the field, seemingly every Iowa defender followed them.  If the two split, the defense looked absolutely lost on which player to cover, or was out of place in the event Denard Just Made A Play

Going forward, I hope this component of the offense doesn’t disappear.  It may mean recruiting another pure athlete like a Denard or Antonio Bass (please ignore the name of the clip) and fitting him in where possible, but guys like Norfleet are probably going to be most effective in running offenses with some misdirection and trickery, and rolling out the formation with players capable of throwing, running, or catching the ball is the type of “out athlete-ing” of opposition schools like UM should be doing.

 

Worst:  Not more Questions?

Of course, I just spent 500 words waxing poetically about the state of the offense, so you’re probably wondering why I’m still bitching about the same unit?  Well, on one hand you have them scoring at least 35 points per game since Devin took over, capped by Devin’s scintillating 6 TD performance in about 3 quarters of play.  The team ground up the Hawkeyes both on ground and in the air for touchdowns on their first 6 drives of the game, and as ST3 noted, the WRs always had between 1 and eleventy-billion steps on the DBs.  It was a dominating performance by a unit that seems to be hitting its stride.

BUT…at the same time, the past three weeks have featured some of the weaker defenses in the conference.  Iowa is a solid middle in the country in terms of overall defense, while Minnesota just gave up 38 straight to Nebraska before they called the hogs off and Northwestern is, well, fine.  Denard and the rest of the offense looked great against Illinois and Purdue as well, but were definitely stymied by the MSU’s and Notre Dame’s of the world, to say nothing of whatever Alabama did to them.  And this has been a problem with Al Borges since he arrived at UM – the offense moves the ball easily against the dregs but grinds against tougher units. 

Overall, though, it’s a unit that is definitely trending upwards, but one also buoyed by weaker opposition the past couple of weeks.  And with OSU welcoming the Wolverines with a defense ranked below Tulsa, Minnesota, and 5-6 Virginia Tech, they may very well not see an above-average defense until January.  So questions remain, but at this point I’m not sure we’ll have answers until 2013.

 

Best:  We Found a Golden Ticket!

 

At the beginning of the season, the key question surrounding the offense was how the shotgun marriage between Denard (and by extension, the rest of the offensive players) and Al Borges would evolve in the second year.  The general sentiment was the whole “square pegs and round holes” arguments you hear whenever teams are not moving the ball as effectively as they could/”should” be doing, with some siding with the pegs and others with the holes.  Where you fall in this debate mirrors the arguments that seemingly boiled over every couple of weeks under RR, especially early on – do you expect Borges to alter his offense somewhat to highlight what the offense does best (i.e. Denard-centric), or do you expect him to integrate the current players as best he can into the system he knows?  And when it failed, do you blame the carpenter (Borges) or the tools (the players) for the rock fights that ensued.

Borges’s offense demands accurate throws in-between levels, a running game that can find gaps on the ends AND generate holes up the middle so that teams have to respect classic play-action, and, perhaps most importantly, QBs who are smart enough to throw the ball away/take a loss when needed, but also capable of improvising and relying on athleticism when needed.  With Jason Campbell in 2004, Borges seemingly met his perfect fit – a guru-approved QB with plus athleticism who struggled at times to put it together but was spectacular when he finally did.  Not to mention the fact that he had two NFL first-rounders at the RB position in Ronnie Brown and Carnell “Cadillac” Williams (and a young Kenny Irons, who later was drafted in the 2nd round, was waiting on the bench under the one-year transfer rule).  The Brandon Cox years that followed were less forgiving, but Borges was able to rebound at San Diego State with reasonable approximation of his 2004 Auburn team with Lindley and Ronnie Hillman, though Ryan Lindley was clearly not the same overall athlete as Campbell.

With Denard, Borges has the most athletic QB he’s ever had, but unfortunately accuracy hasn’t quite followed.  While I am one to believe that part of Denard’s throwing issues are due to poor play-calling, he’s never going to be confused with a Henne or Brady out there, and this offense places more of a premium on hitting guys in stride than in out-running a safety in the open field.  And because Denard is far more effective in the shotgun than in pro set formations, it eliminates running plays from Borges’s playbook, as he has shown only a lukewarm acknowledgment of the read-option offense Denard is best suited for. 

But with Devin, Borges has that reasonably accurate QB who can look over the entire defense and buy some time with his legs, but who’s first inclination remains to throw the ball.  Sure, he’ll run if you give him the lane, but he’s a scrambler more than a runner, and that athleticism is the type Borges seems best suited to harness, not the jitter-bug electricity of #16.  So it looks like Al Borges found that last golden ticket, and it was sitting, er, stumbling around at WR all the time.

 

Worst:  Fitz Injury

Up front, I am incredibly squeamish in a very particular way.  I don’t mind blood or bruises, but whenever I see a leg twist the way it shouldn’t or an arm twist around more than about 100 degrees, I just imagine the cracking of bone and I lose it.  And HD certainly doesn’t help, with its crystal-clear picture and high-quality still frames.  This year we already had the horrific Marcus Lattimore injury, and now Fitz has broken any number of bones in his leg in a tackle that didn’t look that bad in real time but looks WAY worse on replay.  His season is done, and while it has been a disappointing one for him statistically, he’s been a trooper all year and hopefully he’ll be able to return next year fully healthy. 

 

Best:  Greg Mattison, you beautiful bastard

Last week questions returned about this defense’s ability to slow down a dynamic offense like Northwestern, which at least early on found gaps on the edges and missed tackles were happening with regularity.  While the team definitely settled down, highlighted by a 3-man front trick play to end the game, the cracks definitely shown through.  So did this week smooth over those imperfections?  In a sense yes, as UM held Iowa to 7 points until the game was well out of reach, and 0 catches by Iowa WRs.  On the other hand, the fact that a team couldn’t connect a pass to a WR during a regulation game says quite a bit about the team’s offense, and Greg Davis’s singular goal to destroy BHGP’s soul. 

But at the very least, the defense rebounded after a lackluster performance.  Washington and Campbell clogged up the middle, Jake Ryan did Jake Ryan stuff, JRIII gave a great audition for a starting spot in 2013, and Kovacs ended his final home game the only way he could, recording 5 tackles and a clean-up sack to snuff out an Iowa drive.  It was a great performance, and a proper send-off for a unit that has surprised everyone all year.

 

Best:  Thor

In particular, Will Campbell deserves credit for turning around his career a bit in this, his senior season.  After coming to UM as a highly-touted recruit and struggling under GERG and the weight of those lofty rankings for 2 years, he’s made slow strides the past couple of years to being a competent DT in the Big 10, all the while keeping his nose clean and staying out of trouble.  In hindsight, too much was probably expected of him coming out of high school, a monster of a child who never had to learn much technique (and certainly didn’t get much of it while in campus early on), but he’s been solid all season and helped to anchor a run defense that continues to shut teams down.  I’m not sure if he’ll make it to the NFL, but his swan song has been a highlight for this unit.

 

Worst:  Returning to Glory == 15 years

In light of Notre Dame’s divined return to relevance in college football, you’ve probably heard stories of echoes and Horesmen meeting up with Touchdown Jesus.  Well, let it be said that 2012 will be the first time a Notre Dame team has won more than 10 games since 1993, and only the third time they’ve won 10 or more since 1997.  Since they bottomed out at 3-9 in 2007, Notre Dame has won no more than 8 games in any season.  Since 1997, UM has won 10 or more games 7 times, and were probably one Urban Meyer politicking away from playing for a title in 2006.  Teams like Utah, TCU, and Auburn have all had better seasons as well, and while recruiting at Notre Dame has been solid, there is no assurance that this year’s ascension is anything more than a plucky independent team from a non-AQ conference riding some good fortune and a favorable schedule to an undefeated season.  I know it’s Notre Dame and we should all be in awe of Brian Kelly turning top-1 recruiting classes into wins, but count my a skeptic on this being a true fortune turn for the Fighting Irish.

Worst:  Everyone’s the worst, remix

Currently there are two undefeated BCS teams in the country – Notre Dame and Ohio State.  One of them is barred from playing in a bowl game because their former head coach was a creep, and their current athletic director is an idiot.  The only thing standing between the other and a Return to Glory(TM) is Lane f’ing Kiffin.  Oh yeah, and an Alabama team that should have lost to Johnny Football by 20 but now has the inside track at repeating as champions and giving all college football fans another year of tie-wearing enthusiasts screaming their conference affiliation.  I’m Catholic, but if Notre Dame walks out of the Coliseum still unblemished next week, I am going to start stockpiling supplies and building a boat.

And Ohio State was also the beneficiary of the now-weekly poor referee spot.  You know, wait, this deserves it’s own section.

 

Worst:  Hey ref, why don’t you bend over and use your good eye

So yeah, on the 3rd down run at the goalline of the Badger’s second-to-last drive of regulation against the Buckeyes, Montee Ball was down inside the 1 yard line.  Thanks to ESPN’s super-duper sideline camera, everyone in America could see him and the ball well past the first down marker both digitally as well as on the sideline.  Well, everyone except a line judge, who decided Ball and about 1 ton of Wisconsin cheese had moved OSU back 3 inches, bringing up 4th down.  So of course, like any logical official the replay booth upstairs called down and said the last spot should be reviewed.  ESPN then treated us all to another video clip showing Ball’s arm well beyond the first down marker when his knee hit.  Brian Griese even commented that Ball would probably score on the next down and, perhaps, OSU should let him so as to keep more time on the clock. 

Well, we all know what happened.  The official upstairs confirmed the call on the field and Ball fumbled on the 1 inch line on the next play.  Wisconsin ultimately scored to tie the game before losing in OT, but this inability to trust your eyes at least two times is becoming a trend in the Big 10.  Last week it was the generous spot for Colter against UM and the PSU being robbed of a TD late in their game against Nebraska.  This week’s Oregon-Stanford game also featured some weird spotting on the final Stanford drive of regulation, bringing up the question of why referees even replay ball spots if they almost never overturn them. 

I know it’s a “judgment” call, but that’s true for virtually everything else in football and yet you can review many of those plays.  In fact, a ball spotting is one of the least-subjective calls you can make; it’s where the ball was located when a knee or forearm touched the ground or a player’s body touched outside the field of play.  You can look at a video still, see where the contact happened, then look where the ball is.  You even have hash marks as helpful guideposts.  The fact that it is 2012 and we are still having games decided by some myopic adherence to “human error” as part of the game is ludicrous for a billion-dollar sport. 

 

Worst:  Coaching ‘em Up.

People now equate this term with Mark Dantonio’s “amazing” ability to turn lower-rated recruits into good players, but the original master alchemist of turning 2 *’s into real stars was Kirk Ferentz.  Guys like Shonn Greene, Pay Angerer, Captain America, and Amari Spievey went from recruiting also-rans to future NFL draft picks, all the while winning conference titles and bowl games against “superior” teams.  And for this, both the myth and Kirk’s pocketbook grew by monstrous proportions.

Of course, the reality behind the narrative is a bit more muddled.  Iowa has been sending players to the NFL at a rate that is startling higher than you probably expect; they are currently tied with Florida with the 6th-most players currently in the NFL*, ahead of teams like Alabama, OSU, Michigan, and Notre Dame.  Their best players tend to be along the offensive and defensive lines, where good coaching and physical maturation can be the difference between oversized 17-year-olds becoming stars or cautionary tales for television specials about America’s growing obesity and the diseases that afflict them.  And those stars, like Adrian Clayborn, Riley Reiff, Chad Greenway, and Bryan Bulaga, were rated pretty highly by recruiting services coming out of high school, and lived up to their billing. 

To me, Ferentz is as much Moneyball and a favorable media presence as displaying a true ability to unearth diamonds in the recruiting rough.  Norm Parker was a mainstay as DC under Ferentz until this year, and he installed a system that replaced seniors with redshirt juniors like clockwork, mitigating some talent disadvantages with a disciplined, consistent play style taught to kids for 2-3 years before they became starters (a lot like Northwestern at QB, where every year it seemed like a new RS junior QB was ready to take over).  And on offense, Ferentz was all about keeping his backs clean behind an offensive line that wouldn’t necessarily blow you off the ball but could wear down the weaker teams in the conference.  And when the going got tough, well, this would emerge:

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Puntasaurus Roar!

And because of Ferentz’s early success, many people began to conflate his latter seasons with the prior ones into one “winning” tableau that wasn’t particularly true.  Case in point, since 2004 Iowa has a record of 54-36; MSU, 53-36; Missouri 63-29.  I know his best seasons were in 2002 and 2004, but his best seasons were nearly a decade ago, and he’s been averaging about 8 wins a season since 2002, with the number trending down as we get deeper into Justin Timberlake’s solo career

My point isn’t to disparage Ferentz or his accomplishments, but to highlight what feels like a trend in the Big 10 going forward; this will be a conference dominated by OSU and UM going forward, and the “middle class” teams like MSU, Iowa, and NW will probably be squeezed out.  Whereas years ago Ferentz seemed able to transform hay into gold, it looks now like Iowa is going to fall into that 7-8 wins plateau that usually drives non-Northwestern schools to “look for a change of direction” at the top.  But of course, Ferentz has a contract that makes firing him virtually impossible financially at least until the latter part of the decade.  So either his recruiting needs to pick up or that old “coaching magic” better return to Iowa City.

* Of course, #8 on this list is California, reminding us all that coaching may be a teeny-bit overrated when talking about certain “underdog” teams.

 

Best:  Bring On Ohio State

Nothing much else to add except bring on the Buckeyes.  This will be there season, but it should be Michigan’s as well.  And if it plays out the way I think, I might break 5,000 words in my next post.

Devin should start at QB

Devin should start at QB

Submitted by BILG on October 16th, 2011 at 11:25 AM

I know this is sacriledge in these parts, but I will go forth anyhow.  An analysis of why we need a qb change.  This is not out of panic mode as many will attest, but instead from watching our offense struggle the past two years whenever facing a top 25 defense that stacks the box.

1) Denard is not a qb unless he is in a spread option attack

Denard is an amazing athlete that needs to be on the field all the time.  I totally agree with that.  He is also a great kid and leader on this team.  However, trying to run a hybrid offense with him simply won't work.  As a drop back passer he does not look the part.  You can say, "new system", "needs time", etc, but nobody can deny that Devin look the part as a passer.  Sure he is not there yet, but he stands in and throws bullets....not always to the right man yet unfortunately.  Some of Denard's thows are just mind boggling punt looking ducks.  He is not that accurate and has to think about his footwork.  There is  reason other schools did not recruit him as a qb.  Even in RRs system we struggled against good d-lines because if you make an offense one dimensional (in our case force Denard to throw), then you are predictable and play into the defense's hands.  I love Denard and he should still be in on every play on offense, and we need to run a bunch of plays where he is the centerpiece, but if the run is being taken away we need our most accurate passer under center.  He is not that guy...even Coach Hoke said so yesterday.

2)  Don't delay the inevitable

Denard will not be a qb in the NFL and it is very likely Devin would start over him next year.  Devin has already closed ground on him in terms of playing time and it is clear as we transition back to a more pro-style balanced attack that Gardner fits the mold.  Denard is not Michael Vick....Vick is taller and was always more accurate, even as a freshman in college.  It is a disservice to Denard to not train him for his future in the NFL as a slot man / return man.  It is also a disservice to Gardener to not have him get the qb training under center he deserves.  Gardner plays a very similar game as one Vince Young....except he has much better mechanics and accuracy.  Also, the Shane Morris era is around the corner, and Devin probably should get 2-3 full years as starter befor Shane takes over in his sophomore year.  Let the natural qb play qb, and let the most athletic player on our team stand next to him as a qb/rb/wr hybrid in the backfield. 

3)  Spread has not worked against one good Big 10 defense in two years

For those of you who wish to cry heresy, "how could I throw such a great kid under the bus" etc, please realize none of this is personal.  It's about the team.  I love Denard, and he needs to be on the field.  This is just a realistic assessment of his abilities and what we have seen the past couple years.  As a passer, his deep throws are jump balls, he struggles to set his feet, and he is innacurrate on out patterns.  His best throw are laser slant throws, but he often makes the wrong reads on blitzes, especially on obvious passing downs.  Gardner on the other hand, does not have happy feet, looks the part of a division 1 qb, and has had much less playing time and opportunity than Denard.  We will continue to rack up yards against the Minnesotas and Purdues of the world, but we will not improve for the future or be able to consistently beat solid big 10 defenses with a gimmick offense. 

OK, go ahead and rip me a new one with the usual...."stop your panic", "one bad game with wind", "Borges called a bad game", etc.  But realize this assessment is from observing the last two years, not just yesterday.

On a positive not....Greg Mattison is a freaking genius.  While a couple of the missed tackles yesterday were sadly reminicent of the RR era, what that man has done with the defense in one year is nothing short of magical.  All this in spite of a slew of injuries on that side of the ball.

Go Blue