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.
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.
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:
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.