Best: The Gibbons
In baseball, scoring the game-winning run(s) in your final at-bat is regarded as a “walk-off.” The connotation is that the player smoothly performed his duty so well (usually via a homerun) that he can “walk” the bases and enjoy the adulation of a job well done. Well, in adding to his legacy of game-tieing/winning kicks, Brendan Gibbons introduced a new word to the vernacular for game-winning plays: the “Gibbons”. With chaos around him and the weight of the season on his shoulders, he gave this team life that ultimately led them to a stirring victory and, perhaps, changed the final chapters of this wayward football season. After the Sugar Bowl we all thought of Gibbons as a brunette-loving Keith Stone, but after yesterday’s game he has entered into the UM lexicon like “New Math”/“Braylonfest”, “Dilithium”, “Mercury”, the “Threat”, and all of the other cherished moments in UM lore.
Much has been made recently about Gibbons's "struggles" kicking the ball, though if you look at his season stats it was basically a couple of blocked/missed kicks against PSU that were the nadir of his season thus far. Outside of that wacky game, he’s been pretty solid all year; if anything, he’s suffered a bit of regression from his record-setting 16-straight FGs made between last season and this one. His wobbly make last week happens to virtually every kicker from time to time, and any inkling of a “meltdown” was quelled when he drilled his first two FGs into the swirling Evanston wind.
But then the least inspiring 2-minute drive started, and you didn’t know if he’d even have a chance to attempt a makeable kick to tie the game, especially given the playcalling and overall lack of urgency seemingly displayed by the team as it tried to tie the game (I’ll get into that with greater detail below). Throw in a 13-yard sack and a final completion to Gallon with about 13 seconds left and the clock running, and all seemed lost. But then something magical happened, and a team that was so discombobulated that it had to convert two 4th-and-4s on the last drive was able to switch out personnel in mere seconds, spot a wet ball, and send the game into overtime with a no-doubt-about-it (oh gawd, I’m starting to talk like Berman) 44 yarder. Like most readers of this blog, I’ve not been a fan of the special team’s reliance on an archaic punt formation, blocking on FGs, or returns, but this squad and its coach deserve immense credit for executing when it was needed most. I’d also like to point out the great slide by Dileo to get into his holder position, which helped save a second or two that was obviously needed to get the play off.
Best: Northwestern: The ‘Eat Your Vegetables, There are Starving Kids in X’ of College Football
It’s a bit cliche, but I remember my mom whipping out the tired “eat your food, there are kids with far less around the world” argument when I wouldn’t finish my broccoli. Of course, little did she know that broccoli is the most deadly of the vegetables. Regardless, the point was to remind me that there were people out there with it worse off, and not to take for granted the bountiful opportunities before me.
Well, for UM fans those starving children are Northwestern. After a 4-0 start, NW has lost 6 straight, including one game on a last-second Hail Mary from Cereal Empire Progeny Ron Kellogg III and another after being Gibbons’ed with about a second left. Unless they somehow pull off an epic upset against MSU, they will finish with a losing record before they match up against Illinois, and a season that began with talk of a Rose Bowl bid will, at best, end with them playing in some god-forsaken shanty-town (or Detroit) in a late-December bowl game named after a Dave Brandon’s Mortal Enemy or the state in which it is held. So the next time you complain about being “only” 7-3, remember that there are a bunch of future hedge fund associates and medical school colleagues being bummed out for a couple more weeks.
Worst: This is Still the Offense
Lost in the OT victory is the fact this team had 6 points until about 2 seconds left in regulation, and failed to convert on a 3rd down play until OT (going 0-13 in the process). 17 of 24 completions, and 176 of 226 total passing yards, went to Gallon and Funchess, which in one sense feels like a revelation but on the other hand highlights just how dependent this team is on those two winning individual matchups. When the opposition allows it, this is a pretty good receiving core; when the defense can get to Devin and/or bracket the two in coverage there doesn’t appear to be a third option unless Butt is starting to take control of the position (5 catches for 50 yards and a TD the past two weeks). And though I get into it with greater detail below, the running game had a slightly below-average performance, which given the past two weeks makes them f’ing Army out there.
My issue with the offensive gameplan remains the reliance on elements that simply don’t work with nearly enough consistency to warrant the reliance we’ve seen thus far. The announcers noted on that last drive of regulation how the team was able to complete a couple of short passes, and throughout the game it did feel like there was a concerted effort to pick away with short and intermediate routes at times. But there were still far too many two-route formations that screamed pass (or Devin scrambles), and I found myself guessing the offensive call about 75% even with the added wrinkles. And at the most minor hint of establishing a running game, the playcall inevitably came in for a long play-action pass that rarely hit because, again, NW hadn’t been burned enough for them to really start over-playing against the run. Ultimately the game devolved into the Devin Gardner show, which worked because it put the ball in the hands of the most dangerous player on the offense and produced mismatches because the defense had to react to real uncertainty.
I know people will complain that I am focusing too heavily on the negatives and am showing my anti-Borges agenda, and I’ll cop to thinking the guy shouldn’t be the OC anymore. But the fact remains that over the past 12 quarters of regulation, the team has scored exactly 1 TD, and mounted 7 drives of 50 yards or more out of a total of 34 real drives. Again, ignoring the major outlier that was Indiana, this team has averaged about 25 points a game during the conference season, and that includes a pair of 3OT games. It’s a unit that relies on its defense to keep the game close (and at times carve out decent chunks of yardage), and for the money being spent on this staff I’d have expected a more coherent performance even given the weather conditions.
Best: Let Them Play!
It doesn’t seem like too many people took issue with Hoke’s decision to go for the lead with about 5 minutes left in the 4th quarter, and throw my hat into the camp that thought it was the right call. Sure, going for the tie is fine, but this offense hadn’t been able to move the ball much at all throughout the game, and being that close to a game-winning TD made it a no-brainer. At worst you leave NW with poor field position and facing a defense that had largely stymied them all day, and a TD forces NW to drive all the way down the field for the win. With heavy winds and a wet field, that would have been a tall order. Plus, this team had already seemingly played for a tie since the 1st quarter, so it was nice to see Hoke attack convention despite the less-than-optimal results.
To say that Devin Gardner had a “variable” game against Northwestern would be to insult the notions of weak typing and celestial bodies. By raw numbers, Gardner had a slightly below-average game (24/43/226/1TD/0INT) mitigated somewhat by some nasty weather and a remarkably stout Wildcat pass defense. Interspersed amongst those 19 incompletions, though, were a number of throws that this ball-hawking NW defense could have easily caught and returned for TDs, and of which would likely have dramatically altered the outcome of this game. On the first drive along, Gardner threw at least two balls that bounced off defenders’ hands with nothing by grass between them and the endzone, to even the final drive of regulation where a game-ending INT simply slipped away from a DB’s grasp.
And most of these near-turnovers were simply due to bad throws or misreading coverage, from locking onto Funchess on the sideline despite a LB clearly lurking not two steps away to throwing at Innerspace-sized windows. Perhaps it was cosmic penance for some of the wacky interceptions that occurred earlier in the year or Gardner’s private incantations to drive out bad spirits, but Northwestern left dozens of points on that field, any of which would have eliminated the insanity that led to UM’s win. On one hand it was further evidence that Gardner has a great deal maturation ahead of him if the mental aspects of his game are to catch up to his physical skillset, taking him from an inconsistent talent to a transcendent one. On the other, though, it was the first time in weeks that it felt like Gardner was even thinking of throwing the ball aggressively, and credit for this revelation should go to both him and Borges. It wasn’t smooth sailing by any stretch, but at this point in the year I’d rather see them taking chances than going deeper into the well-fortified shell they’ve seemingly occupied since PSU (save for the And-1 mixtape that was IU).
Worst: Out with the Old Poor Damn Toussaint, In with the They Can’t Be Worse
I am an avowed Fitz fan, and have been for most of the year. I thought his struggles running the ball mostly had to do with the offensive line, and I still wouldn’t be surprised to see him catch on in the NFL as a free agent for at least a cup of coffee. He still seems to possess the shiftiness and speed that made him so promising a couple of years ago, even though I’m sure his injuries have taken a toll. And as others have noted, Fred Jackson is a lot of things but “coach able to develop RBs beyond their natural talents” maybe isn’t one of them. But as the past couple of weeks have shown, his struggles as a blocker on passing downs are not going away, and considering he’s a senior who has recorded 26 yards total the past 2 weeks and maybe, possibly a little injured, it was time for a change to Green and Smith.
With the two freshmen in the lineup, the team “rolled” for 4.4 yards per carry from the RB position, and generally looked semi-competent rushing the ball even though even the 4.4 was goosed by two long runs of 23 and 16 yards. Drop those two long runs and the average was closer to 3.2 ypc, but for the first time in a couple of weeks there felt like the threat of running the ball was there for the Wolverines.
Now, caveats aplenty do apply. NW still recorded 10 TFL including 5 sacks, and a couple of those came from said freshmen whiffing on blocks just as badly as Fitz. Green and Smith were intermittently able to run after first contact, but against a mediocre rushing unit in the rain I’d be careful about extrapolating too much. Next week against Iowa will be a truer test, and I’d be surprised if they saw similar success against a decent Hawkeye front 7. It seems a bit unfair to pull Fitz after having him suffer running against the best rushing defense in the country and a hyper-aggressive Cornhusker unit that was calling the offensive plays at the line, but this being results-based grading I suspect his role will be further minimized until such time as Green and/or Smith struggle to run the ball effectively. That may be after the 1st quarter next week, but until then this may be the ignominious end to the star-crossed UM career of PDT.
Best: 9 Points the Hard Way
Some will issue with the fact that I questioned the offensive playcalling despite the weather conditions while ignoring the fact that NW only scored 9 points in regulation. And yes, this particular NW outfit doesn’t possess the dynamic offensive talent we’ve come to expect from the Wildcats, even with Colter and Siemian on the field. Still, the defense faced 11 drives and forced punts on 8 of them, which was doubly impressive given the fact that NW was coming off a bye week and (outside of Venric Marc) had its full complement of offensive weapons. The defense still held the Wildcats to 308 yards on 73 plays in regulation, including a Nordic Minnesota-esque 16-play FG drive on NW’s first drive that (along with UM’s own 12-play FG march) basically ate up the 1st quarter. And perhaps most inspiringly, the unit held its own late in the game, forcing punts on all three 4th-quarter possessions while only giving up about 55 yards.
That said, the unit remains inconsistent. It still can’t produce much in the way of an organic pass rush, though it was able to record two sacks, including Jibreel Black’s final drive-crushing one in OT. It largely kept NW from exposing the edge or gaining many yards after initial contact, and NW averaged under 3 ypc despite running the ball 49 times. And perhaps most excitingly, most completions tended to end with near-immediate tackles, limiting the YAC that is the bread-and-butter of the best spread offenses.
I find it hard to write much more about the defense, simply because it has been remarkably consistent save for about half of the IU game. It bends more than I’d like, but it has always kept UM in the game and rarely blows assignments; in short, it looks well-coached despite having sub-optimal talent. Most importantly, I see how incremental improvements can turn it into a championship-level defense, and the coaches and players seem to have bought into the system that will get them there. Maybe they’ll get blown out of the water by OSU or the bowl opponent, but right now this feels like the next evolutionary step in a dominant defense.
Best: Frank the Tank
I’ll admit to not being a firm believer in the Frank Clark Hype Machine when it left the station at the beginning of the year, but I wanted to point out how nicely he’s come along. Early in the year he just looked like an athlete trying to figure out how to play football; now he seems to get how to play his position with a fair bit of consistency. He isn’t perfect by any means and I’m not sure he’ll ever be a dominant end, but now when a play breaks down it isn’t usually because of something dumb he did, and it does seem like teams are starting to have to gameplan a bit to stop him. I’m not really able to dedicate the time to analyze the tape to confirm how much of an improvement he’s made, but the UFRs have been showing a steady improvement by him as well as Black as the year has progressed.
The game featured a total of 4 penalties for 35 yards, which given the pedigrees of the teams (and the sometime-haughtiness of the fanbases) probably shouldn’t surprise anyone. And unlike in years past, Pat Fitzgerald didn’t jump around and celebrate a late hit, so it was downright civilized in Evanston.
Best/Worst: Freedom is the only way now!
An obvious best for Veterans Day and the overall recognition of the service provided by those in uniform. I’m not getting into the underlying political issues surrounding the development and use of the U.S. military during both wartime and peactime, but only applauding a day that recognizes many of the sacrifices made by those in the military. It always seems a bit weird when sports teams don one-off uniforms designed to recognize the military because they can feel a bit tone-def or commercial, but I tend to believe their hearts are in the right place.
That said, my gawd were those Northwestern uniforms weird looking. I’m usually not a guy who cares about sartorial choices, but from the faux-tattered flag helmets, the military-academy-approved names such as Freedom, Commitment, and Courage nameplates, to the obscene amount of gray during an overcast and dreary game which would end under the lights, it was a bit too jarring especially given the fact Veteran’s Day was nearly a week ago. Looking back, it felt a bit like the Washington Generals were trying to play football, which should have been a good sign for the Wolverines. And unlike UM and their CEO AD, this didn’t feel like an attempt by the NW brass to rake in money; it just felt like good intentions with meh implementation.
Worst: All These High Horses Sure Do Produce a Bunch of Sh*t
So I thought this was settled when it had to be stated AGAIN not to attack players via social media and question their “heart” and “dedication”, but as I delved through the open threads and twitter I saw a number of people say the “Player X (usually Gardner) should be benched” because he was too dumb, too lazy, etc. to play the position. Now, I’m an avowed opponent of Feelings-Ball, and nothing drives me crazier than (usually older) fans challenging the intelligence and dedication of college kids playing a game. So let me again state to all those out there: STOP QUESTIONNING THE INTELLIGENCE AND DEDICATION OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYERS. I’m happy you made it to the Regional finals with your HS team back in 1998 (Go Cougars!), but there is about a 0% chance that most of the Internet could even play a whole series of downs against this level of competition without dying, let alone perform as well as most of these kids have this season. That doesn’t mean you can’t take issue with the results (i.e. pointing out the offensive line has struggled is just making a factual observation; saying that it is because one of the linemen is lazy and stupid is being a dick).
In particular, Devin’s struggles are not because he doesn’t “get” the offense worse than Morris (or more importantly, the mythic Morris who isn’t a freshman playing behind a pretty poor offensive line), but because he is playing in a sub-optimal situation while still learning whatever offensive philosophy the coaches are trying to install along with the other 10 guys on offense. I don’t think there is a racial component involved in much of this taunting (I’d be foolish to believe there isn’t a segment because I saw the same with Denard), since John Navarre is one of the most “classic” QB’s you’ll ever see and people were merciless with him when he played at UM. And while the great “execution” versus “coaching” debate remains just as lively as ever here, you can make the argument about the play on the field without questioning the intrinsic characteristics of the players involved.
Best: False or Real, I’ll Take All the Hope You’ve Got!
Yes it was Northwestern and it was a crazy finish, but this team now has a chance to finish the season with some momentum if they can play up to Iowa and then, maybe, stay competitive with OSU. While I’d be happy with a split, the Buckeyes showed just enough weakness against Illinois to give me a sense that this game could be interesting, and at home in a rivalry you never know. And seeing as how the Buckeyes were passed over by Baylor and Oregon is nipping at their heels, UM could still at least play spoiler like they did during most of Cooper’s run. And along the way, UM still could finish with 10 wins, which would be a pretty amazing accomplishment given the way this season has unfolded.