Akron: Anatomy of a Tire Fire

Submitted by Eye of the Tiger on September 16th, 2013 at 12:30 PM

 

There’s been a lot of talk about who or what to blame for the Great Akron Tire Fire of 2013. Is Akron actually good or are we actually not that good? Were we “outcoached?” Did Hoke, Borges and Mattison spend the week watching reruns of A-Team instead of film? Did Devin Gardner just have an off day? Why was this almost The Horror: Part Deux instead of the blowout every single one of us expected?

 

I don’t see a single culprit, but rather, a coincidence of factors—each of which had a negative effect on the outcome. No single one can, in my estimation, account for a 28-24 near loss to Akron, but each contributed in the way that rubber, oxygen and sparks contribute to a real tire fire.

 

The point of this diary is to try to determine the importance of the various factors involved, relative to one another. This is a qualitative analysis, but I’ve jazzed it up with some numbers to make things more fun. First I looked at the final score, 28-24, and the fact that there were a total of 52 points scored. I then decided (for the sake of pseudoscientific modeling, of course) that in a perfect game, we score all the points. Against Akron, that would be 52-0 us. Working from this assumption, every element of our near-loss should contribute some discrete number of points away from 52-0 and towards 28-24. I then looked at the one factor that can be quantified—points off of Gardner’s turnovers—and determined the points and approximate percentages attributable to other factors relative to that.   

 

Without further ado, then, here’s what I blame, along with the percentage of blame I think they are accountable for, and why. I’ve also included an “adjusted score” to show what the final might have been like had this one factor not been a factor (and everything else held constant).  

 

1. Akron – 15% [7 points.]

 

Adjusted Score: 31-20 

 

Clearly Akron played better than we thought they were capable of—their 2 stars, walk-ons and JUCO transfers did nearly as well against us as Notre Dame’s parade of heralded 4 and 5 stars. It’s the coaching: Terry Bowden and Chuck Amato are unusually experienced for the MAC, and have enjoyed success at the highest level.** They weren’t intimidated, and clearly did their homework. As bad as they have been in the past, on this specific day they played better than anyone expected—appreciably better than, say, Central Michigan did a couple weeks ago. And it doesn’t hurt that they figured out our snap count. Of course, that probably would not have mattered had it not been for our…

 

2. Complacency – 40% [21 points]

 

Adjusted Score: 42–17 or 35-10

 

As much as Akron’s gameplan execution exceeded expectations, ours failed to live up to even the minimal standard. In some ways, the game resembled a bastard hybrid of Carr-era and Rodriguez-era demons—ultra-soft defense, conservative play-calling and a languid approach to an early-season opponent tied to soul-crushing turnovers, missed field goals and inexplicably stalled drives. Though I don’t know what went on during the week, it sure seemed like everyone, from the staff on down, figured this one would wrap up by the end of first quarter. We were content to line up with our most vanilla defense, expecting to get pressure from our front four against a max protect blocking scheme. Instead, Pohl had a lot of time to find the gaps in our soft zone. The offense was better, but there were too many DeBord-esque obvious runs on obvious running downs right into 9 dudes for -2 to 2 yards. That might have worked when we had Mike Hart or Chris Perry running behind a more experienced O-line, but we don’t, and so it did not. We could have gone more to the zone-read—when we did, it worked like a charm. But we didn’t.* The players don’t get a pass here either. A lot of guys just looked lazy and/or disoriented out there—guys who are pretty decent, like Michael Schofield, Joe Bolden, Brendan Gibbons and Matt Wile. Maybe it was a “hangover” effect from last week, or simple overconfidence. I lean towards the latter—this was a team that wasn’t prepared for adversity, and consequently, wasn’t putting in much of an effort. Even when it was clear that more effort was needed, we were sloppy.

 

3. Devin Gardner’s Gameday Psychology – 25% [14 points]

 

Adjusted Score: 35-17

 

It’s apparently feast or famine with Rich Rodriguez-recruited quarterbacks, and in this sense Devin Garner appears no different than Denard Robinson or Tate Forcier before him. All have the ability to dazzle you with their improvisational skills on one play, only to crush your hopes and dreams will their gun-slingin’ ways on the next. In this game, Devin made four crucial, head-scratching errors.  The fumble came because he couldn’t decide whether to keep or pitch on a speed option. The pitch was open for a TD, but instead he just sort of didn’t protect the ball and—whoops—there it went. And the INTs…oh dear—one returned for a touchdown and the other two almost converted into field goals. His turnovers accounted for 14 points, and nearly for another 6. And that’s not even taking into account the drive-killing throws to Tacopants. Despite what I said earlier, this is Akron. A MAC team. Put in the same position, Michigan State, Northwestern and Ohio all make more than 14 points out of 4 turnovers. 

 

4. Lack of Skill and/or Experience at Key Positions - 20% [10 points]

 

Adjusted Score: 31-17

 

We all worried about this in the offseason, but then against Notre Dame, it suddenly didn’t seem to matter. Well, it does. We missed an interior O-line that can get a push against an undersized and less-talented defensive front. We missed being able to get a pass rush with the front four. We missed Jordan Kovacs. We missed Jake Ryan. We missed having a reliable run game from the running backs. Still, we have enough talent and skill, distributed evenly enough and bolstered by good coaching, that this should not have greatly affected the outcome against Akron. Northwestern, Sparty or even Iowa, maybe, but not Akron. Never Akron.

 

What This Means Going Forward

 

Sometimes a bad game against an inferior opponent exposes certain flaws that will become unavoidable as you move to league play. Other times, it’s just one bad game—embarrassing, certainly, but not necessarily indicative of season-long trends. The two low points of the past 20 years of Michigan football are undoubtedly the 2007 “Horror” against Appalachian State and the 2008 “Nameless Embarrassment” against Toledo. The Horror was emblematic of the latter—sure we stank the following week against a very good Oregon team, but we did recover. We won 8 of our last 10 and then beat Urban Meyer’s Florida in the Capital One Bowl. By contrast, the loss against Toledo was pretty emblematic of who we were that year, i.e. the worst Michigan team since the 1960s, if not longer.

 

The good news is that, since we won this one, we will eventually forget it ever happened. I mean, how many of us remember that we had to come from behind to beat San Diego State in 2004? I didn't until I looked it up. By contrast, I will never forget losing to App State and Toledo. So there’s that. What really worries me, though, is that this one is more like the 2010 near-disaster against UMASS, or Ben Chappell’s one game Heisman performance of 2009—wins that expose fundamental flaws that will haunt us down the line.

 

I believe the evidence is unclear on this—certainly, the game did expose our weakness on the interior offensive line, as well as our inability to get pressure without blitzing. It also reminded us that creative, improvisational quarterbacks almost inevitably have off days, when the split-second, seat-of-your-pants decisions just don’t go your way. I imagine that we will have more days where our O-line can’t get a push and our D-line gets pushed. I also imagine that there is at least one more game left where Gardner’s penchant for turning the ball over puts the outcome in jeopardy.

 

The good news is that these are areas where we can improve over the course of the season. Kalis is a guy I expect to be a lot better by the end of the season than he is now—the talent is there; it’s just that the experience is not. Young, talented guys can learn from this embarrassment—Ojemudia, Clark, Bolden, Ross, Thomas, Hollowell. And Jake Ryan's return should help considerably.

 

The bad news is that improvement over the course of a season is often negated by injuries and often lost in the transition to better and more consistent competition. The young starters will almost certainly have another bad game before the season is done. Probably on the road, though as this game proves, it can happen at home too.

 

Gardner’s game-time psychology is an equal, if not bigger factor, for the simple reason that we ask him to do so much, and to paper over so many structural weaknesses in our roster. Of the three Rodriguez-era quarterbacks I mentioned above, Devin, I think, has the highest ceiling. He showed us that against Notre Dame, as well as last year when he filled in for Denard. In his weekly diary, Bronxblue pointed out that Devin is more than a bit like Vince Young—a supreme athlete who eventually turned into the most dominant individual player I’ve ever seen, but who first struggled with consistency in the passing game. Devin’s passing is actually better than Young’s was at this stage in his career, but he does have that problem with turnovers, and it’s a big one. As much as I love this coaching staff, it’s unclear whether they will be able to work the turnovers out of his system—Denard, as we all know, regressed in the INT department in the shift from 2010 to 2011. Since Devin better fits the Borges mold, I think they'll have better success with him on this front, but it’s still too much of an open question for my liking.

 

All that said, complacency was the biggest single ingredient of this tire fire, and I do not think this will be a problem again. Hoke and company dodged a bullet on Saturday, and do not think anyone will be looked past or given short shrift going forward. Take that out of the equation, and the next tire fire looks to max out at 60% of this one. 

 

The bottom line is, we are unlikely to play this poorly against anyone else left on our schedule. Unfortunately, the rest of the teams on our schedule are all better than Akron. Still, if we can fix the complacency and preparation issue and halve the turnovers, that should be enough to win more games than we lose from this point forward. Unfortunately, this game also shows us that we're not quite ready for the big time yet. The saving grace is that we play in the Big 10, where arguably no one else is either. 

 

*We did have some success under center, but my impression is that shotgun formations were more consistently successful. I’m looking forward to the UFR to see if that’s correct or not.

**EDIT: And let's not forget Jim Tressel, who unfortunately knows a thing or two about winning at Michigan Stadium. 

Comments

reshp1

September 16th, 2013 at 2:01 PM ^

I actually attempted to do this from a slightly more quantitative standpoint. Here's what I came up with

Actual final 28-24

-7 points to Akron on Gardner pick 6: 28-17

+7 points to Michigan on Gardner red-zone fumble: 35-17

+7 points to Akron on Wilson pick in Akron endzone: 35-24

-3 points to Akron on first M 3 and out and subsequent shanked punt: 35-21

+3 points to Michigan on Gibbon's missed extra point: 38-21

-14 points to Akron on soft bend/don't break D: 38-7

+7 points on lucky as hell goal line stand on last play: 38-14

 

Other:

Our inability to consistently execute on the OL got us behind the sticks on several drives and resulted in (bad) punts. That probably cost us at least 7, but it's hard to quantify. Akron also played up a level and took advantage of what we were giving them. That's somewhat accounted for in the 14 points to the bend/don't break D. We were actually pretty fortunate the 2 other turnovers didn't really have much impact on the game. 

I don't know what to make of it. I think it came down to our mistakes came at just the right times to kill drives and momentum. That left the door open and we could never quite slam it shut on a team we gave new life and hope to the whole game.

 

charblue.

September 16th, 2013 at 2:13 PM ^

near the goal line, when you were only hoping that the Zips wouldn't find a way to snatch victory from the jaws of victory, and Terry Bowden complied with his two play calls that enabled Mattison's defense to redeem its pliable but never break components, there were guys who fit the gap and who got to the quarterback and forced an errant pass. And it was a win and the breakdown in how you saw it as a near loss, still equals the ingredients of its component parts as a close win. 

Dumb ass plays and mistakes in every phase of the game, mostly near the goal line, ruining scoring chances and giving life to a team that didn't think it could, until it kept getting the ball back, and beating Michigan defenders in the deep middle and sideline, finally gave the burst of impetus, making the tug on Gardner's cape more than an insult. There was very real Krytonite in the Zips play on Saturday. 

Was this mostly a function of complacency and poor grunt work in the trenches, if the opposition is doing everything it can to make you look bad, scheme-wise and otherwise, because let's face it, this is a beauty contest not a competition? 

In these type of games, as the favorite, there is little window of opportunity for looking good, even if you dominate. People will alwyas look at the negatives over the positives. To me, the greatest positive was that this didn't supplant App State or Toledo on Michigan's personal hit parade of all-time soul-crushing defeats. 

Let's acknowledge something: If you play these teams, and you get behind but still win, it's a loss. It's a loss in public face and program comparison. This game has no real value except as a competition between kids with near equal experience and age, which, is rhe real reason these games are played.

It's only the stage and the uniforms players wear that create the mindset of difference, and, of course, history and tradition, that overburdens play on the field and every thought about outcome and its meaning.

 Michigan has better players and more of them than Akron. There is no question. But bad teams beat better ones from time to time. And the elements of those defeats are woven in the scenario of every fatal outcome. Ulimately Michigan gave the Zips to many chances Saturday. 

TheOzone.net's Tony Gerdemen who was gleefully watching this game from Berkeley for his Monday Michigan column decided after the Alamo was defended that he could just get sarcastic about the Zipperhead sheduling of this contest instead of rubbing it in the way you know he and other rival fans secretly were hoping to. 

Alas you get this from him: 

What an amazing win by Michigan over the Zips! A gallant effort against a well-respected Akron football team. It's a shame that anybody had to lose this game, but the Wolverines were just a touch better than the Zips on this day. ESPN Classic, if you still exist, you now have a new greatest victory on your shelves. Truly an honor to be able to witness such an even battle between two equal titans. Thank you Dave Brandon for scheduling such a contest!

Let's say Michigan went on the road Saturday night to square off against UConn, and then faced Akron, do you think gametime circumstances, views, attitudes and performance would be different? Would you look at the team differently if they clocked the Huskies on their home field and then came home for a following noon affair with the Zips? A doughnut special, glazed with sweet white icing or sprinkles? 

You know it's kind of interesting, Ohio scored a quick 21 against Cal on Saturday, and 31 the rest of the game in beating the Golden Bears 52-34, which means they got outscored through three quarters. Nebraska scored 21 quick points and led 21-3 over UCLA with their blackshirts on, then got taken to the cleaners, allowing an unanswered 38 points. 

MSU ran it up on Youngstown State because there is no question about their attacking defense and its imperative to strangle your offense. The only real issue in that game was whether somebody in Green and White could direct the offense into the end zone more than once a game. And, guess what, over a highly mismatched team with that limited goal, the Sparties found their guy. Heavens to Betsy, there is now renewed hope in EL that Heaven can now wait for their team. 

Or, you can feel bad for Wisconsin whose qb still doesn't get clock management and the rules governing it no matter how many times he told the ref he was going to spike the ball. Why don't you just kick the field goal? 

And then in Evanston, the train that is driven by the two-headed qb locomotive, sort of got sidetracked Saturday night as the Western Michigan Broncos and their young staff couldn't stay with the Wildcats. It was a win, but hardly pretty. 

In the end, of course, all these games will be forgotton as the schedule moves along which is the only reason why Michigan beating Akron matters, because winning is the only thing that matters, in both record and history, the real burden of these types of contests. 

Jeff Fa Fah Pillon

September 17th, 2013 at 7:33 AM ^

Forget the percentages and all that jazz...Here's my breakdown.  3 TO's inside the red zone

- 21 points    Gardner pick 6 +7 for da Zips.  = 28 point difference.  Take away the take aways and you get a likely 2 or 3 touchdown victory.  Stll no excuse for the D to let Akron march down the field all day.

Baldbill

September 17th, 2013 at 7:45 AM ^

I think the fifth factor in this game that you didn't account for is that Cheaty McSweater Vest (Jim Tressel) is now at Akron. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Bowden reached out to him for tips on how to beat Michigan since he pretty much owned us.