This will be a super-abbreviated version of Best and Worst. The game didn’t end until well into Sunday, which for a father of a not-quite 2-month old is akin to suicide by sleep deprivation, so I caught it on DVR. Rest assured, it was a quick watch. Plus, the game was the perfect microcosm of this past year, so there really isn’t anything “new” to add except at the fringes. So if you want me to rail against the coaching staff, the playcalling, the lack of coherent run-blocking, etc., feel free to re-read literally any of my diaries after Notre Dame.
Now, on with the Best and Worst of UM’s fall from grace into the BWW/Insight.com/Copper Bowl.
Best: Mama Said Knock You Out
One meme proliferating across this site in recent weeks is “death to 2013” and how this year of UM sports is the worst in memory. While I contend any year when one of your major programs plays in the national championship game and has a player win all of the national POY awards can’t be that bad, the struggles by football and hockey were unexpectedly traumatic. And so, in the same week we learn that Mitch McGary will miss the rest of the year with back surgery and the hockey team was swept out of the GLI, it is fitting that the final blow to 2013 be delivered by the Fightin’ Bill Snyder’s JuCo State Wildcats in a pretty complete victory against Brady Hoke’s Whatever Man Wolverines.
At least 2014 couldn’t be much worse, provided you don’t look at the 2014 football schedule, realize the basketball team is giving significant minutes to limited offensive players at center instead of a possible first-round draft pick, or the hockey team failing to beat a bunch of teams that aren’t going to sniff the NCAA tourney.
Best: That Could Have Gone WAY Worse…
What if I told you that Michigan would be giving their true freshman QB his first start in an organized football game since midway through his senior year of HS, with no discernible running game, a faltering defense, and facing a Kansas State team that was 11-2 last year and probably was a couple games better than its record and had gone 5-1 in its last 6 games? You would have expected the team the game to be a blowout of epic proportions, and you would have been right with that expectation.
Don’t get me wrong, this was a complete victory by KSU. They scored TDs on all three meaningful drives of the 1st half, and missed a chip-shot FG to start the 2nd half. Tyler Lockett abused Taylor and Countess repeatedly, a member of the Wayans-sized brood of Gronkowskis was blitheringly wide open, and the Wildcats started near midfield numerous times because of abysmal kick coverage. KSU completed 75% of its passes for 271 yards, averaged 4.1 ypc on 36 carries, and held UM’s non-Morris and non-Funchess runners to 8 yards on 9 carries, which is probably the 3rd-worst rushing performance of the year.*
And yet, this wasn’t MSU or Iowa, games where the offense looked anemic throughout and hope was eradicated swiftly and without mercy. Morris was solid in the first half, going 15 for 19 and playing within the confines of the limited offense, and even though he struggled a bit in the second half he showed poise and confidence you want to see in a young QB. The arm was as powerful as advertised, and the accuracy issues seemed within an acceptable range, not Worms Armageddon that had been heard about in practice. We saw a fair number of screens, WR runs, and other low-risk plays that helped UM move down the field on their first two drives. He was only sacked once, which is pretty amazing considering Gardner is walking around in a boot and still picking rib out of his teeth, and he did rush for 43 yards on 4 carries and showed a bit more athleticism than I think some expected.
While Lockett abused the secondary to the tune of 3 TDs, I thought the defensive line did a decent job getting pressure considering how much KSU was holding (2 were called plus a hands to the face of Clark), and the blitzes were getting through if a fraction late. It’s as young a defense as the offense, and it did feel like Mattison made some adjustments in the 2nd half that helped to slow down KSU. I’m not giving him a pass by any means (I’ll touch on the two coordinators later), but this is probably the second best offensive unit faced this year and holding them to 31 points (24 if you throw out Morris’s interception putting them on the 7 yard line) is below their season average and in line with what teams like Oklahoma and Ok St. gave up.
It was a loss, but not nearly as debilitating to me as those to Iowa and MSU because you can see the kernels of growth, of possibility, amongst the dreck.
* If you were expecting more exclamation points or emotion recounting those rushing numbers, I don’t know what to say. It’s been that type of year.
Worst: The Myth of the Bowl Practices
Every year, you hear fans talk about the benefits of bowl practices, of how it allows teams to shore up weak areas and promote maturation and growth of younger players through additional, structured activities. I’m sure there is some efficacy to those claims, especially for younger players who are able to become more comfortable with the schemes to run and coaches are able to roll out more of the playbook for those players returning the following season. Undoubtedly, there is value in letting football players play football for 3+ more weeks.
That said, I’m not sure why anyone expected things like “running the ball” and “LBers being good in coverage” to improve because the players had a couple more weeks to prepare. At best, bowl practices allow you to accentuate the things you do well and maybe add a wrinkle or two, but if you can’t do “X” for 12 games over 3 months it would be both amazing and sad if it finally “clicked” because you didn’t want to embarrass yourself at a bowl sponsored by a place where brosephs and middle-aged fathers hang out to choke down drenched chicken wings and overpriced alcohol and said bowl game isn’t even broadcasted.
Al Borges seemingly spent his time looking at his playbook and saying “welp, let’s see how many ways I can run the ball without relying on my offensive line to block effectively” while Mattison visited the Materials Science department to see if he could wring out any more flexure from his defensive schemes. The playcalls and the performances should feel, at best, like remixes of earlier games, maybe with a slightly different beat and a bit less ennui. But about the time Lockett was burning single-coverage for the 2nd TD in the first half and Shane Morris was trying to Tebow a ball on a delayed option-ish play, it was pretty clear that there was a pig beneath that nice shade of lipstick.
Worst: Just Go For It!
Watching UM kick short FGs on their first two drives deep into the red zone made me feel, well…
Again, you playing in the F’ING BW3 Bowl in Tempe, Arizona at 10:15 EST on December 28th. You had all year to play “conservative” and “for the win.” That got you to 7-5 with close wins against Akron and a neutered UConn. You wasted every gimmicky play in your playbook to matriculate down the field, have a true freshman at QB, no running game, and a defense that has struggled to stop dynamic offenses all year. I know that the advanced stats can’t take in all forms of context, but playing in a bowl previously named after an IT company pretty much gives you carte blanche to hang your balls all the way out and call whatever plays you want. It wasn’t a full surrender or anything, but I definitely heard this in the back of my mind.
8-5 and 7-6 are functionally the same even though, I guess, 8 wins looks better given recent UM history and the plateau it has been mired in, but how you get there says quite a bit. Brady Hoke has shown a willingness to take risks, so I’m not reading too much into these decisions, but man it would have been nice to at least see them go for it when the game was still in doubt. Plus, considering KSU had great field position after every kick-off, the points-versus-field position argument was even more skewed toward going for it.
Worst: The Coordinators
I’ll admit to being a bigger fan of Greg Mattison than Al Borges, so up front I want to make it clear that Al Borges called a pretty good first half of football and Mattison seemed absolutely lost in stopping a team whose passing offense was “throw to #16” and “throw to guy wide open in the middle of the field.” Borges has no functional running game, in part, because nobody seems able to block defenders, and so he went about trying ever-ludicrous methods to move the ball on the ground and the air without putting too much pressure on Shane Morris. These were all plays fans have seen before, but he wove in screens, end-arounds, sweeps, and easy middle-distance throws into a coherent gameplan that let UM move the ball pretty effectively on their first couple of drives. At the very least, he came out punching despite having one hand behind his back, and for that he deserves kudos. And in particular during that first foray into the redzone, a PI on either of Morris’s two passes to Gallon and Funchess probably would have allowed UM to score a TD and kept the game closer. The fact the offense sputtered in the 2nd half isn’t that surprising, as WR runs and delayed screens only work so often when your base offense is churning up less than a yard a carry and your WRs are being blanketed when they aren’t dropping passes from your amped-up QB. Borges has shown an ability to adapt somewhat these past couple of games, and next year it is going to need to be flexible because I have a hard time believing it will suddenly start running the ball under center for 4 ypc while airing the ball out with aplomb.
On the other side of the ball, this “bending” defense clearly broke in the first half, as KSU had no trouble moving up and down the field despite holding penalties putting them in some poor down-and-distances. Taylor and Countess couldn’t keep Lockett even remotely contained, and it seemed virtually impossible for the team to bring pressure while also maintain their assignments, leading to long conversions after acres of open field just appeared. The defense tightened up somewhat in the 2nd half, but this defense needs to make a massive step forward next year for this team to improve on their record, and it’s now been two games in a row where the defense seems flat-footed and ill-prepared against good offenses. That needs to change, and given the youth out there (Gedeon, Thomas, and Henry seemed to get significant run) along with some improving older players like Clark and a healthy Ryan, I expect that to happen.
Worst: Quarterback Controversy
Going into the game, you heard fans suggesting that if Morris played well you might see him getting the nod to start next year. I thought it was insane at the time, and while Morris played well in a limited offensive system, a healthy Devin Gardner gives this team the best chance to win next year by a healthy margin. Again, barring incredible improvements along the line, including replacing an All American and another pretty solid tackle, pass-blocking will probably take a step back while maybe run-blocking will take a tiny step forward. Gardner has shown all year that he can make plays when that happens, and while it isn’t always pretty it still feels like the best option given Morris’s limited experience and size. Sure, people will say that learning to play with “adversity” is necessary in a player’s development, but learning these lessons while possibly suffering through a litany of injuries won’t help anyone. It is a bit of cold calculus, but if next year is going to even rougher offensively I’d rather have the senior who has dealt with it before back there versus the “future” QB who hasn’t and doesn’t need to break a couple of ribs in the process.
Best: Smooth Operator
Jeremy Gallon, my spirit animal/forever Pomeroy Award winner, set the numerous records as a WR and reminded everyone that the cliche about judging books by covers applies doubly for angry mountain goats from Florida with rocketboots. I fully expect him to tear it up in the NFL as one of those terrifying slot WRs that Peyton Manning or Tom Brady use to demolish teams all year. I’m sure Brian and co. will provide a more fitting send-off, but it’s hard not to watch him play and appreciate just how special a player he has been these past 5 years.
Meh: On To Next Year
I’m sure I’ll be excited after NSD, when emotion and hope replace ennui and pessimism. This team has the talent to be better, and it should be next year. There probably should be some shakeups in the staff that won’t happen, but this isn’t a “tire fire” or a “lost lockerroom”. It was a team with gaping talent holes that the coaches couldn’t fill, probably due to a combination of stubbornness, youth, and bad luck. The team that nearly lost to Akron but also took OSU to the limit ended its season on a disappointing note, but given an offseason and some fresh blood I suspect they’ll be better. Everyone needs to get better and I doubt anyone in Schembechler Hall would argue with that assessment. But as a guy who only gets to watch 12-13 football games a year out of these Wolverines, I’ll take what I can get.