Best: You Play to Win the Game!
Right off the bat: I had zero, nada, zilch issue with Brady Hoke’s decision to go for the win after Funchess’s late TD. Short reason why: Because when you have a chance to end it, you end it now. This team has already seen triple OT twice this year, and as a head coach you are paid to look at your team and put them in the best position to win a game, and sometimes that position is 3 yards from the endzone with 30 seconds to play.
I can give you statistical and objective rationales supporting this decision: UM had given up 393 yards rushing up to that point (at an 8.5 ypc clip), the defense was without Ross and on its backup kicker while OSU’s kicker Basil had only missed one all year, and with 32 seconds left even a tie was not assured given Wile’s last OOB kick and the speed by which OSU’s offense can move the ball. In OT you’re starting from the 25 yard line, with all the vagaries and dangers inherent in the sport of football on Saturday, and expecting a team to execute in that circumstance (especially given their inconsistencies all year) is a recipe for heartache. In short, you may never be that close to the endzone again this game, with a near-full playbook (I’ll get to the actual playcall a bit later) and the defense clearly on its heels.
Gardner was having a great game but had already been sacked 3 times (including once on that last scoring drive) and hit on numerous runs. In OT, the weight of the offense would undoubtedly been placed even heavier on his arms and legs, appendages that had already suffered immensely in this game (it was clear he was struggling to plant his foot while throwing the ball at times, and his recent fumbling issues indicated some arm injury).
Across the field, OSU had failed to really slow down the UM offense all day, giving up over 600 yards and failing to stop Funchess’s last TD from about the same distance. And while the situation isn’t perfectly encapsulated in the system, an advanced stat calculator pegged the success at over 55% given the down and distance.
But what made this the right call goes beyond the boxscore. I’m not one to believe to karma, that momentum works the same way to the flow of a football game as it does to TV scientists on rollerblades, or in the “power” of moral victories. But this team has been in a tailspin for weeks, notable as much for its ferocity as its totality. Against PSU, UM had played conservatively, conceding offensive aggression and creativity for the “certainty” and safety of FG attempts, decisions that cost them the game multiple times (and a game in which Bill O’Brien, in going for the eventual win in OT, did so because he didn’t want to drag the game out more and put that pressure on his kids). Against MSU, a late-game interception turned into –21 yards and the functional end of the game. Nebraska and Iowa were vary shades of domination obscured somewhat by some fortuitous scores, a game defense, and ineptitude on the part of the opponents. Even the dramatic win against NW felt hollow, needing a miracle kick to push a 9-9 game to overtime against a team that lost 7 of 8 to end the year. Along the way, the temperature of the offensive coordinator’s seat was best described on the Kelvin scale, major recruits were “keeping their options open”, and a vocal group of alumni were wondering if another shakeup needed to occur in Schembechler Hall.
Hoke had to make that call not because he had to prove he carried produce in his shorts, or because he wanted to add his name to arcane lists, or to make a certain agro part of the fanbase happy who question his toughness because he doesn’t scream at press conferences or throw stuff. Winning or losing this game wouldn’t have functionally changed the outcome for this season, unless I missed the rule change that gave you more “victories” for a close win over one team from Ohio instead of another. No, you make that 2-point call because in a season marked by offensive ineptitude and bungled opportunities, UM had a chance to remove all the uncertainty, all the coin flips, replays, and referees from the process and win or lose a game by matriculating a synthetic, oblong ball 3 yards. It didn’t work out, but by holding true to himself throughout this game Hoke showed that he was sick of playing it safe, at least for this afternoon.
Worst: And Yet…
I know, I just spent a couple hundred words espousing the virtues of Hoke’s decision, but in fairness I recognize the argument for kicking the tying extra point. As noted, neither defense was slowing the other offense down much, but in overtime it takes just one defensive play to end a game. UM had made some of those plays throughout the game, picking off an erratic Miller while also forcing a Hyde fumble. Gardner was having the second-best passing day in UM history, surpassed only by his game against IU earlier in the year, and the running game was functional and, at times, explosive (152 yards on 35 carries, a 4.3 ypc). Not surprisingly, Jeremy Gallon was adding to his legacy by notching the most receiving yards by a Wolverine against the Buckeyes (9/175/1), Funchess was still terrifying despite some drops, and Jake Butt and The Threat (combined 10/145/2) had emerged as competent alternative options.
Across the field, Miller had completed only 6 of 15 passes (though 2 were for TDs, including a long one to Smith due to the now-customary safety breakdown on a deep run), and while still a running threat was clearly not having a great day. Hyde rushed for an OSU record against UM (226 at 8.4 ypc) but had also fumbled, and I don’t know, maybe he was getting tired. While going for 2 showed faith in your offense it also was a bit of a white flag for your defense, and despite giving up 526 yards I thought the defense had played decent enough despite the Furman breakdown and their troubles taking down Miller and Hyde running the ball.
Beyond the play on the field, the conventional wisdom is you go for the tie at home and the win on the road; the idea is that road teams are subject to crowd noise and intimidation, unfamiliar sightlines and environments, “influential” referees, and various other factors. At home, you should extend the game out as needed, as all those factors working against your opponent are (in theory) in play for you, doubly so if you buy the notion that OSU would be reeling from the late UM comeback and might perform sub-optimally in overtime.
And while it stings a little to admit how Sparty it feels, playing spoiler to OSU’s perfect season isn’t exactly foreign to UM, and would provide one particularly delicious coda to an otherwise-uninspiring season.
For all these reasons and many more, I totally understand the argument for pushing the game into extra frames. Not saying I agree with it in practice, but had Hoke lined up Wile I wouldn’t have thrown my hands up in disgust.
Worst: Lining Up for Two, Again
One thing that DID drive me crazy was that final 2-point conversion play. Not because the first playcall was a bad idea; I like stacking WRs in short yardage because their dispersal can really disrupt a secondary and, at the very least, opens up some space in case Gardner wanted to run. I do like having at least one receiver on the other side just to keep the defense honest, but that’s a minor quibble.
But once UM lined up and OSU saw the formation, they called a TO to, I presume, align their defense in a different/better formation. So after the timeout, what did UM do? They lined up in (I believe) the same formation, or at least something functionally similar. I know there are limited plays for short-yardage situations, but at least give OSU a different look, a wrinkle, something that would provide some uncertainty. I’m not calling for the statute of liberty (though that would have been awesome), but something man. Instead, it felt like OSU knew the ball was going to Dileo before the snap and played it as such, picking off the pass basically as soon as it left Gardner’s hand. It felt like the “safe” call to make in that situation, and after a game full of ballsiness and dramatic comebacks, I’d have prefer something a bit different on the reset.
Worst: Hey, I Still Have Eligibility Remaining, Doesn’t Mean I Should Play Too
Now, I’m not questioning Josh Furman’s or Courtney Avery’s desire or inherent “Human Being”-ness, and I recognize that they are still a million times better football players than I have been or ever will be. That said, I remain flummoxed that both of them received so much playing time in such an important game after, at best, inconsistent seasons (and in Furman’s case, careers). Or in words that I uttered after that Smith TD, “Why the f**k aren’t Wilson and Gordon starting!” (censored for the small child in my arms that was trying to sleep between milk comas).
Given the run-heavy offense favored by OSU, Avery’s small stature made him a significant mismatch at FS compared to Gordon, who has about 30 pounds on him and had laid the wood on a couple of guys already this year. Plus, with Ross III out you had a sense that the safeties would need to be even more involved in the run game, or at least pose a threat to taking down the ballcarrier. And while I get that Josh Furman has always been touted as an above-average athlete, that hasn’t translated to on-field performance during his tenure at UM despite numerous opportunities. Trying to unearth some heretofore mystery diamond from the bench kind of makes sense against CMU or Akron, but against OSU I’d have hoped the roster changes would have been limited to injuries and a couple of trusted rotations.
Best: Gedeon’s Army
Pressed into service with Ross out of the lineup, I thought Ben Gedeon played decently, with the major caveat that OSU basically ran over UM all day. He had a nice sack of Miller early on, and tied for the lead on the team for solo and total tackles with 6. I’m not expecting him and Bolden to grade out particularly well, but he was a guy that people talked about having amazing athleticism and a mean streak, and I thought he acquitted himself out there well.
As for the defense overall, it was an inconsistent day that was alternately encouraging and infuriating. 526 total yards is below OSU’s season average, and on the 11 functional drives the defense forced 3 punts in addition to the 2 turnovers. Yes, the rest of OSU’s drives were all pretty epic scoring drives, but when you gave up 407 yards to Greg Davis you’ll take what you can get. The defense didn’t let OSU get out to its typical first-quarter lead (I don’t have the stat at hand, but they said during the game OSU had outscored opponents 200+ points to 40~ish to start the game), which kept the game manageable early on and let the offense establish itself a bit. And while Miller did throw for 2 TDs including the aforementioned blown coverage TD, he completed only 31% of his passes and generally looked pained throwing the ball.
All that said, the next UM-OSU game that doesn’t feature a massively blown coverage will be a welcome addition to my life. I know you can only do so much to prepare, but Mattison has seen this before by OSU and yet it continues to happen with a regularity that defies chance. Furthermore, there were a couple of throws early on by Miller that probably should have been caught for big gains but were either dropped or off-target, so perhaps his passing numbers are a bit deflated. Plus, when you are averaging almost 10 yards a carry, you really don’t need to throw the ball too much. It was a weird game all around so it is difficult to figure out how much of this was defensive breakdowns and how much was OSU being able to call “rock” with impunity because said rock is bigger than your LBs, but it remained a decent performance marred by some depressing moments.
A funny thing happened as I watched this game: the playcalling didn’t seem particularly different from past weeks. Sure, there were wrinkles: Gallon’s screen pass for 84 yards that he was Megatron’ed on (i.e. Calvin Johnson’s penchant last year of getting ankle-tackled just before the endzone), that delayed throwback screen to Fitz on the final scoring drive was a stroke of genius, and a running game that employed Gardner’s legs and the threat of an option to offset an aggressive OSU front 7. It felt like Borges spread the field out reasonably well, forcing a suspect OSU secondary to actually track receivers downfield instead of cheat toward the line, and (perhaps because of the long layoff between this game and the bowl) he seemed more willing to give Gardner the run-pass option that makes him so dangerous.
As noted earlier, young 98 had the second-best day passing in UM history while only being sacked 3 times (which feels like a win given how badly he’s been beaten up the past half-dozen games), and Green, Smith, and Toussaint were effective running the ball and, most importantly, limited the drive-killing TFLs (only 2 non-sack ones on the day). I’m not a connoisseur of blocking, but Gardner seemed to have enough time in the pocket to make his throws, and I saw linemen into the second level of blocking without 3 Buckeyes dogpiling the guy with the ball. So in that respect, it does feel like the offense “executed” to the coaches’ specifications. It only took 12 games, but I’m guessing Borges will be happy with how the offense moved the ball. That said…
Best: Is There a Tom Emanski for Tackling?
Because if there is, somebody needs to FedEx some copies to Luke Fickell immediately. While this wasn’t the worst tackling display I’ve witnessed (because, well, UM was once coached by GERG), the number of times OSU players failed to tackle properly was pretty amazing given the recruiting and talent bona fides on the field. I always thought South Carolina’s NFL Blitz-style “hitz!” were bad, but at least those attempts felt calculated. OSU had UM dead-to-rights on a couple of occasions (Funchess on a double-reverse, Jet Sweep by Gallon, an early Fitz run, Smith’s long run, a couple of Gardner scrambles) and either missed the initial tackle or failed to contain so that a big loss was either mitigated or even turned into a positive one. It was weird to see, especially in juxtaposition to UM that had trouble tackling Miller and Hyde because of their size but generally recorded TFLs when they were presented. I know Fickell is a disciple of Tressel and all, but Meyer’s lack of involvement on the defensive side puts a lot of pressure on the DC who may just not be up to the task. I know OSU ranks reasonably high on the FEI and advanced metrics for defense, but this unit has seemingly taken a pretty significant step back from those vintage Buckeye units, and at some point it is going to bite them in the ass when the offense slows down.
Worst: I’m Still Not Happy with the Offense
“But wait, they racked up over 600 yards and scored 41 points,” says you, conscientious blog reader. “They are improving, and maybe even turning the page on a new era of offensive competency in Ann Arbor.”
Well, maybe I’m too jaundiced or beaten down of a fan, but this offense is still basically the one that couldn’t crack 200 total yards 3 times this year (including last week), and who despite having record-setting days against IU and OSU is still 83rd in total offense. As noted above, the playcalling was a little better but also benefited immensely from OSU not tackling and otherwise failing to disrupt a unit that still seems uncertain of what to do, reliant on favored formations that most defenses have figured out pretty well.
What I think saved UM in this game is that they had some early success running the ball, which took pressure off Gardner throwing and didn’t allow OSU to run away with the game. I mean, OSU usually averages in the mid-70s in terms of number of plays, but UM was able to hold them to 61. Whereas in games past UM couldn’t string together coherent drives, here they were able to convert 8 of 14 3rd down plays as well as 1 of 2 4th down situations, keeping them on the field and never letting OSU get away even when they took the lead. Even with the restricted playbook Borges seems to be working from, being close on the scoreboard gave him the full complement to choose from, a luxury he’s had in other games but seemingly was unable to take advantage of. And it cannot be understated how the busted plays didn’t turn into 10+ yard losses; it kept the offense in manageable situations instead of the usual Sarlacc Pit 2nd/3rd-and-17 creates.
So I’m not dismissing the offensive performance out of hand; it was a revelation to see a competent unit move up and down the field with dynamic and successful plays. The offensive staff had a vision and they largely followed through on it, and that should be commended. But this felt a bit like the IU game wherein the offense ran its plays and OSU simply didn’t adjust/stop them like other teams have done before. Perhaps the Ohio governor’s decision to ban the letter ‘M’ meant the Buckeye defensive staff failed to check the mail for gametapes of the UM offense, because it certainly didn’t feel like Borges was breaking out anything demonstrably new, only that he seemed less afraid of spreading the field out and giving Gardner a chance to make plays in space. If I had any faith that would be the core of the offense going forward then I’d be less sanguine, but I’ve seen this tease before and, frankly, I’m not buying that he’s just doing this to pay for college.
Best: Brian’s Predictions
At the start of the season, Brian made some predictions for the offense. A couple of them were comically off (see improved rushing offense, Al Borges seems like a better coordinator), while others hewed closer to reality (Funchess blowing up happened a bit, but he’s struggled the last couple of weeks; Dileo was underutilized but was also injured for half the year). But the one he was dead on was about Gardner and Gallon solidifying their mind-meld, resulting in Gallon challenging Braylon’s best season. Right now, he’s about 50 yards short of the record, so expect to see this little jumpy mountain goat in the rarefied air of the great WRs at UM after the bowl game. It continues to amaze me that a Pomeroy candidate became one of the most prolific and dangerous deep threats AND endzone targets in history, but it was amazing to watch.
Worst: State of the Blog or
Best: Leave Brian Alone!
For those who may have missed the twitter feed, Brian voiced his displeasure with a subset of the UM fanbase that took him to task for the dour tone the blog has taken in recent weeks. Like a completely unnecessary best-of album, people chimed in with all the hits against MGoBlog and Brian’s take on the team. Some argued that he was being overly dramatic and whiny, that he didn’t understand football like a former player and thus his analysis was suspect, that he held himself in too high esteem for being a lowly blogger, and that he wasn’t a real fan because he publicly questioned the direction of the team and, I don’t know, wasn’t ecstatic at losing the 9th time in 10 chances against OSU. Basically, it was every comment thread on the site the past 2-3 weeks, compressed into 140 characters.
Now, I don’t expect a single person to give a crap what I’m about to say. The fact you have read this far makes me think you’re just bored and figure you won’t be getting a UFR soon enough so you might as well check out all of the content up right now. I’ve never really played organized football save a couple of weeks in PeeWee, I’m not a guy who can break down defenses or offenses with particular alacrity, and I’m not a huge “big ideas” writer either. I’m a moderately-intelligent alum who likes to watch football and cares about UM winning to the extent that I like nice things to happen to my alma mater. And I don’t have a dog in this fight; this blog would be fine without my diary, but I also find this site a nice pressure release from life and, I don’t know, helps me stretch out and flex a writing muscle that otherwise is hemmed in by my duties as a software programmer and occasional attorney.
So all that said, I’m sick of people acting as if this blog (or more particularly, Brian) needs to conform to their world-view for it to remain relevant. Now, I’m not defending Brian; he doesn’t need my help and I doubt gives two shits what I think. But as a loyal reader who enjoys the content and tone of this site, I’m tired of the meta arguments popping up that do nothing more than regurgitate the same 3-4 arguments for 50+ comments. This is a site on the web that talks about UM football from a particular perspective, no different than the other dozen or so blogs listed to your left. The only difference is that this space is the most prominent and, I guess, “influential” due to its size. But at its core, the arguments always feel like complaints about opinions, that Brian’s should be more in touch with their worldview because their voice needs to be heard/promoted.
This might sound esoteric, but I blame the concept of the “Internet” for this phenomenon wherein people come to expect free content to be customized for their pleasure, and are offended when it doesn’t happen because, hell, they can watch coaching fat-head supercuts on demand so dance monkey, dance. If you don’t like how the site is run or its content, go somewhere else. There are numerous sites I used to visit that I stopped when they became undesirable, and at no point did I tweet or email the proprietor and call him a “pussy” or question his writing style, nor did I provide unsolicited advice on how to “keep” me around by changing the content. For some reason, while people love the idea of the personalized echo chamber on the net, they are dead-set set against doing the legwork to find it, instead demanding the places they usually visit to do that work for them.
Listen, I’m not a fan of overly emo prose for its own sake, and I’ve taken people to task here for popular sentiments I disagree with. Conflicting opinions are and should be welcome everywhere, and anyone who thinks this site is overly draconian in its bannings should look at those instances carefully. But the number of people who say they “haven’t read the site in years” and “hate what happened to it” while still following the official twitter feed and maintaining accounts boggles my mind. Go somewhere else if it bothers you this much, or stick around and be productive, but the absolutely LEAST productive and MOST condescending thing you can do is provide “real talk” about one of the most popular football sites on the internet because you wish it wasn’t such a downer sometimes, man.
The team had an up-and-down season; I looked over my old diaries and it feels like ages ago I was calling this offense one of the best in recent memory. You want to focus on how “close” the team was to not being 7-5, go play horseshoes or hand grenades. The team probably isn’t as bad as it looks (only the MSU loss felt like a game UM wasn’t in late), but losing by a point to an overrated OSU team doesn’t mitigate the season-long struggles to run the ball and develop cohesive line play, implement a coherent offensive philosophy, and otherwise evolve and improve in year 3 of the Brady Hoke era. I still think there needs to be a shakeup on the offensive side of the ball, and unless Borges makes an about-face from a schematic standpoint expect next year to be as disjointed as this one, just without the most-prolific WR in team history and two NFL OTs to protect Devin Gardner.
For those who TL;DR’ed this section, I guess I’m #TeamBrian, #gosomewhereelse, #twitteristheworst, #ontherinterneteveryoneknowswhenyouareadouche.
Best: The Seniors
I’ll keep this brief: it’s a small class (which says something about why the team has struggled this year), but one with a couple of memorable players – Lewan, Gallon – and a bunch of grinders who stuck it out. I know it feels like every season people are trumpeting the outgoing players for sticking around during a tumultuous time, but these kids have seen the highs and lows of the last RR year, the Process, and the upheaval of these past couple seasons. They deserve better than 7-5 and a meh bowl game, but all was not for naught. They have their memories, from the big wins against OSU, MSU, VT, and ND, to a BCS win against VT, to (a perhaps somewhat hollow) 4 straight winning seasons. This isn’t the most accomplished or memorable group of seniors, but in many ways they bare the scars of UM’s transition into modern football era, and hopefully those will help this team going forward. Regardless, thanks to the seniors for their play this season and throughout their careers.
Best: One More Game!
It’s going to be a mediocre bowl game against an SEC team (probably), but so be it. After sitting through two successive bowl-less years, any time you can play and practice another month and send the seniors home with a win somewhere in Florida shouldn’t be downplayed. Next year will be different because of realignment and player losses, but for now this team has another game to play, meaning one more week to agonize, commiserate, debate, and cheer on Team 134.