This is going to be a little shorter than normal for a variety of reasons. Mostly because I have better things to do than rehash another ass-kicking, but also because I have a half-marathon on Sunday that I decided would be a good idea not training for and I want to enjoy my last couple of hours with functioning calves.
Worst: Caring is Creepy
I want to care. I really do. I want to look at barely 100 yards of total offense against Minnesota through 3 quarters, giving up 30 straight points, the pick-six, the continued dumb punting, everything and care. And the fact I'm going to write over 3,000 words about it probably means I still do in some way. But right now, man, I just don't know why I keep watching this team. I get that Brian and co. need to because this site pays the bills, but what's in it for fans like me who are supposed to derive pleasure from watching their alma mater line up every Saturday? As I've mentioned before, I have a young daughter, a beautiful wife, good health, and enough hobbies to keep me busy most weekends. And yet, even after Notre Dame. Even after Utah. Even after the last x number of years of watching Michigan football screw it up more times than not, in ever-more-agonizing fashion, I keep coming back.
I don't know anymore. I might keep writing these columns out of force of habit, but I don't know why it matters. Michigan is poofarting its way toward its 4th coach in 7 years, another 2 months of talk radio complaining, former players calling out the current administration, anonymous sources reporting Dave Brandon is out, is getting a raise, is wandering around Meijers at 2 in the morning trying to Synergize with valued consumers about their love for Michigan and Dr. Pepper.
This season is 5 games in and it feels like it's been going on 40 years, the saddest carousel just spinning around and around while little kids are bored and everyone just wants to get off and get on some other ride. Somebody commented in my last post that they wish I showed more emotion in these posts, that I write them about passion but don't display it. Well, this is what ennui looks and writes like. It's a broken guy who is looking at the screen and looking forward to apple picking next weekend with his family over watching his favorite team in the whole f'ing world get worked over by a commuter school in NJ because it means Cablevision might carry the B1G Network on its basic package instead of the extra "sports" one I pay for.
Worst: Compounded Stupidity
Shane Morris is trying his best out there, so I want it to be clear that I am not questioning him. But there is no reason in the world why he should have started this game if Gardner was even remotely healthy, and nothing in this game dispelled the notion for all of his failings, Gardner is the better QB for this particular team right now. Morris threw one pick-6 that was a combination of poor blocking and staring down a receiver as soon as they broke the huddle, but he also threw 2-3 more passes that probably should have been picked off. He also fumbled a ball for no particular reason, and after being injured early in the 3rd quarter was clearly moving in pain. Morris may be the answer, but certainly not to the questions surrounding this putrid offense.
(I'll leave claims of Morris possibly being concussed and still on the field for those with more information, because I wasn't there and we've seen many players take shots and bounce back up. Not to play devil's advocate, but it looked as much like Morris had the wind knocked out of him by that hit than he was concussed, and the fact he was taken out 2 plays later felt like a coaching staff realizing something more was up than a hit. Putting him in a couple of plays later for that handoff is obviously bad, and his fumbling with a response in the postgame didn't help anything. [EDIT] That said, Brady Hoke is many things, but it takes a pretty extreme jump in logic [admittedly, one that a certain subset of the fanbase is dying to make] to claim that he would knowingly endanger the health of one of his players in a game. But as more information comes out, that could obviously change the story. I'm just wary of the reactionary tone that took over immediately following the game, especially by [mostly] uninvolved third parties).
And yet, Hoke just kept running him out there, giving him the "game experience" of having 300 pound men land on his injured leg and forcing bad throws into bad coverage while the line crumbles around him. Mercifully he was pulled late in the 4th quarter, his ankle clearly ravaged and immediately bound up in bags of ice, and then Gardner was sent in to, I don't know, try to move the offense after being put so far behind the 8-ball that he was basically playing Snooker. After the first sustained scoring drive of the day gave the fans a slight bit of hope, the offense again became bogged down after poor field position and that was the game.
Sadly, this is becoming a running theme with Hoke. Like his QBs after one too many sacks, he locks onto a single target and just won't let go even when it is clearly futile. In his mind, Shane Morris starting was the decision Brady Hoke, the head coach of Michigan, made, and come hell, high water, or complete scuttling of the offense he was going to play every down possible goddamnit. As with the continued stupidity surrounding the punting formation (which cost them another 66 yards after last week's debacle) and his clear preference for a slowed-down, huddling offense, Hoke seems unwilling or unable to look at the current situation and reassess his options; like the mark at a Poker table, he can't read the table one bit and just keeps raising on his 2-7 because there's the possibility he'll hit a flush. All coaches have their blind spots (RR was vilified for not changing his offense when he arrived at UM given the talent available, and the less we talk about GERG the better) but Hoke's seem so wide that we should probably just take his keys away.
Worst: Tough Enough
One of the hottest of #HOTTAKES going on these past couple of weeks has been the railing against the "toughness" of the players the coaching staff. Everywhere you go, you hear and read people questioning the heart and desire of this team, about its willingness to do "what is necessary" to win, to be great, and every other insipid sports cliche uttered by screenlight coaches and players. Amplifying this mentality has been former players calling out the program and players, questioning their abilities and lobbying for the removal of the coaches and Dave Brandon. The general sentiment on the always-reliable internet is that the program is rudderless and that the players have given up as a result, or at the very least aren't able to put the effort forth necessary to win.
I know last week I described the death of my optimism about this season, so this might sound a bit hypocritical to then attack others for voicing their own displeasure, but I am profoundly, mind-numbingly tired of people questioning the desire of college players and the people who have dedicated their lives to making them better. Now, I'm not defending the results so far on the scoreboard, nor am I saying that I believe guys like Hoke, Funk, Ferrigno, etc. are the best choices for the jobs the currently inhabit. I still believe that Hoke should be gone, as the number of boneheaded decisions (the punting formation fiasco and the lack of anything resembling tempo or urgency on offense being prime examples) has only increased since he's been at the helm. But I absolutely believe that he cares about Michigan football and is trying his best to make it a winner, just like everyone else involved with the program; to question the effort and desire put forth by the players and coaches is asinine.
But caring about results is only part of the equation; you need to be able to perform well to achieve them, and obviously that is where the team has fallen short. And some of that is maybe due to "mental toughness", though I guess I read that as more to do with lagging preparation and compounded mistakes than the idea that the players are too "dumb"/easily manipulated by bad circumstances and just mentally check out. Nobody is happy with the season thus far in toto, but the reductiveness displayed by a portion of the fanbase that conflates this objective outcome with subjective interpretations of how much college-aged kids care about their performance is even worse.
It highlights the disconnect and, frankly, the gladiatorial "are you not entertained"-ness of how fans view most athletes, but it is especially disheartening when we treat college athletes, many of whom are juggling lives far more complicated and strained compared to their peers, as pawns for our entertainment. When they succeed, we tend to imprint those successes on ourselves, taking pride in accomplishments we have no connection to beyond the fact that we root for the name on their jersies. And when they inevitably fail to meet our expectations, we bristle at the equally-absurd insinuation that this reflects poorly on ourselves and our passion, resulting in questions of manhood and effort being put forth by people who are, with few exceptions, infinitely better at the sport they play than anyone reading about them is, was, or ever will be at it.
So as a fanbase, I would love nothing more than the bulk of people (because there are going to be mouthbreathers who stopped reading this post at the hashtag and will continue to perpetuate this behavior) stopped wondering about whether or not kids and coaches who represent Michigan care about putting forth the best effort possible (they do) and instead focus on how to support them while also fixing the MANY institutional and administrative issues that have lingered with this team through its various permutations.
Or, to put more succinctly, stop shitting on college kids because you don't like your team losing and need to rationalize that sad feeling in your stomach away by questioning the character of other people.
Best: Fire Brandon
That's it. Oh, you want something more?
Okay, Fire Everyone.
I'm fine with the fans chanting. Might as well direct it toward something reasonable. While I am loathe to believe it matters much to the people in control, the complete clusterf*ck that has been the athletic department these past couple of weeks might as well be highlighted by the brave souls who actually watched the game this week in person.
Best: Former Players Having Opinions
Worst: Needing to Share Those Opinions Every Chance They Get
On one hand, I absolutely believe that fans of this team should voice their opinions, and that former players and others involved in the program have a unique perspective on how the team is being run and what should be its future. I'm just a guy who sits on his couch 13 times a year watching Michigan football and remembers how it felt sitting in the stands over a decade ago watching them play under Lloyd Carr. Like the overwhelming majority of fans, my involvement with the team began and ended when I paid for tickets, and even as an alum I don't feel any great connection to the program beyond the unhealthy obsession fostered by this site and the internet more generally. So guys who bled for this team, who sat through the two-a-days, the tough losses, the long trips and the late-night study tables, and performed admirably for my entertainment should absolutely be allowed to hold their own opinions and, in certain contexts, feel free to voice them much in the same way I do here.
That said, there is a fine line between voicing your displeasure and piling on, and when you step over that line you are simply providing even more distractions for a program that doesn't need them. When someone like me writes a couple thousand words bitching about the team, nobody puts a microphone in front of me or plasters it on the front page of the sports section, and that's probably for the best because I'm kind of an idiot. But former players aren't nameless, faceless goobers; they are "important people" who "speak for the fans", and so their words are given extra meaning when they are probably based on the same raw emotions and frayed nerves that swell in most UM fans' hearts right now. They aren't pointing out something new or unknown; to continue my analogy from last week regarding the Titanic, everyone's seen the f'ing iceberg and the ship ain't getting out of the way.
Brady Hoke should be gone; full stop. The likelihood of him surviving has moved from the nearly-impossible (beat OSU and/or MSU and win a bowl game) to non-existent; even with two upsets over the rivals I can't see the toxicity surrounding him to dissipate enough. Wins will be treated as blind squirrels finding long-forgotten nuts; the core problems people have with him aren't going to change and, frankly, they would only become more calcified if Hoke could pull off a couple of wins to validate them.
It may be counter-intuitive, but I think far volumes would be spoken by former players simply remaining silent through this whole process. Brady Hoke isn't a bad guy (sure he's ornery with the press but that's the nature of any antagonistic relationship) and his love for the University is true and, sadly, unrequited right now. But we've already seen with RR how a toxic environment, fostered in part by former players speaking out against him in the press with nothing more than poorly-thought-out rants and references to a fabricated "way we used to do things", can submarine a program when it is already floundering, and both for this team as well the next coach coming in, it would be a positive for everyone if the vitriol was dialed down. I don't expect that to happen, but it would definitely help.
That's the number of plays Minnesota ran against Michigan, including 40 in the first half. For comparison, Michigan ran 53 plays all game. I thought the defense held up reasonably well in the first half despite UM having only 1 drive in that first half that lasted more than about 2 minutes and change. It felt a bit like watching the MSU game from last year, where the defense tried to hold the fort against a bruising team while the offense sputtered pretty spectacularly. Even Smith's TD was mostly a short-field drive helped by a single long-ish run. There was no sustained offensive playcalling, and it left the defense facing a rush-first team going downhill at halftime, especially after Minnesota worked their way down the field for a FG to end the half. After stoning Minnesota on the first drive of the second half and holding them to a long FG after a bad punt gave the Gophers great field position, you had a sense that the defense desperately needed the offense to do something, anything to keep the floodgates from opening. Of course, Morris then threw his pick-six and the game was effectively over.
I know it is popular to complain about every completion or positive run as if the defense is falling apart, but at some point you can't expect a defense to shut down a competent offense for 4 quarters. Minnesota's offense isn't amazing by any stretch, but it knows what it's good at and when Mitch Leidner is hitting Maxxxxxxx Williams down the sideline for one-handed grabs, there's not much else you can do. The corners, especially without Peppers and a still-slow Taylor, didn't look great, and the front seven played well but failed the dominate the line of scrimmage, which was going to be necessary to keep the game close. Yet despite the offense's ineptitude, this was a game late into the 3rd quarter, and in another world with a different offense Michigan still could have pulled this game out. I don't believe the defense is dominant, but it wasn't "exposed" here any more than most defenses are "exposed" when they are left out there far too long and without any real hope.
Worst: The Offensive Line, Again
After a couple-game reprieve to start the year, the offensive line has been downright porous the last two weeks. It's clearly a young unit trying to figure it out on the fly, and that obviously isn't conducive to keeping everyone healthy and upright. That said, Minnesota was credited with 6 TFLs, but it felt like double, and this a week after Utah recorded double-digit TFLs and seemed to be living in the backfield. The running game seemed marginally better with Smith in there, but outside of that one TD drive the rushing attack never got on track. That, plus the mounting point differential, let Minnesota pin its ears back even more. Tight end blocking remains a major issue, as Morris's near-safety in the endzone was only "saved" by Williams starting his hold outside of the endzone. Neither side of the line seemed particularly sturdy, though with Morris as a lefty it will be interesting to see if that adversely affected blocking a bit more than usual.
As people have said, competency is the shining beacon at the top of the hill for this year, and right now that feels like it is miles away.
Worst: Gotta (Get) Some Separation
I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago against Miami, but without Devin Funchess at full speed it doesn't feel like any of the other WRs can get consistent separation from opposing corners and open up the types of windows a QB needs to hit. Given how bad Funchess has looked in the weeks since he picked up the most important 4 yards in the history of UM football against Notre Dame (hear those echoes), someone else in the receiving core needs to step up and provide an open target, and in this game it rarely seemed like anyone was doing that downfield. True, Morris didn't help the matter by consistently throwing behind, ahead, around, etc. his receivers, but when your QB's long completion is 14 yards and it's to the guy with a gimpy ankle, you are in trouble. It does feel like the team might be overflowing with possession receivers, which is great if you have other options but deadly when the defense can sit on them without fear of being burned deep. Minnesota does have a good secondary and Morris was, again, pretty erratic, but if this team has any hope of moving the ball going forward somebody is going to have to start catching the ball downfield.
Worst: Next Week
I keep saying it couldn't be worse but it still does. Rutgers should be a very winnable game, but who the heck knows anymore. I presume Gardner will get the start so that will help, and Gary Nova may just be inept enough that Michigan can pull out a win. But I'm finally ready to accept that Michigan is going to probably blow this game, and it might get ugly at the end. I hope I'm proven wrong, but I'm definitely not going to worry about it either way.