Best and Worst: PSU

Submitted by bronxblue on October 14th, 2013 at 1:29 PM

[Ed-S: Bump]

There are going to be references to wrestling here.  I might link to some dumb Youtube clips.  You probably won’t agree with everything I say.  Even the positives are pretty negative.  I don’t care; deal with it.

Best:  Crown Their Ass!

"That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we're all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can even bring ourselves to even try to imagine..." -

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

This is UM football in 2013.  It’s a collection of mismatched players and coaches groping in the dark at 2am, looking for a light switch that is connected to a single outlet with frayed wires that at any moment could spark and burn the whole house down.  For 5 games, though, it was enough and UM kept on winning, despite enough “stirring” comebacks against mighty Akron and UConn that ESPN had a video montage queued up for late in the game.  They probably should have lost a game before this one; now they have it out of the way so people can stop being teased with the least impressive run at perfection seen in Ann Arbor for decades.  The house has officially burned down and now, perhaps, they can try to build something from the ashes. 

UM is what we all thought they were; it just took the weirdest f’ing game to come to reality.

Supplementary Best:  Now THAT’s MANBALL

And you know how people constantly argue over the meaning of MANBALL?  Well, we just saw what it probably means to this staff and, really, throughout most UM history save for a divergence of sorts under RR.  It’s about playing the percentages to an extent, but also cutting your playbook into a tiny sheet that says “Run dat ball dog!” and “Whatever, let Devin do something” once you get a 10-point lead.  It means looking at your offensive line, seeing a bunch of first-year players and Schofield in the second half and figuring you might as well abandon the only positive running plays you have (read options and/or designed QB runs) for the same crappy -2-yard jabs into the line. 

And perhaps most criminal of all, it’s relying on a college kicker, in a very hostile environment, to kick some game-winning FGs instead of trying for first downs in OT because you’re afraid of, I don’t know, turnovers or dragons or something equally asinine.  I don’t care if Borges or Funk are around tomorrow, but this offensive staff has been stuck in this broken loop of playcalling for most of the year, and maybe a loss like this, the way it happened will snap them out of it.  Or, you know…


For lack of a better term, once UM secured that 10-point lead Borges and Hoke adopted Heroball as the base offense: holding onto the ball until the last moment, telegraphing every play from a drastically shrunken playbook, and replacing any semblance of misdirection or creativity that got them that lead with predictable play-calling and the misguided hope that “everything will work out.”  Well, it didn’t.

[Jump for Worst (ever).]

Worst:  Everything

Throw out Gardner-designed runs and the team averaged .93 ypc, with a long of 12 yards.  Even with the QB rushing, the team couldn’t crack 3 ypc. 

I looked to see if .93 had some funny analog, like how fast humans have come to slowing down light or the fact that one of my favorite movies, Jurassic Park, came out then.  I even thought I might be able to get my blood alcohol level around that number until I realized it would take me drinking enough to kill a pack of rhinos. 

That is a ghastly number, one that wasn’t looking any hotter before Lewan went out late in the first half with, apparently, the infamous “lower-body” injury.  The offensive line was basically Schofield-Kalis-Glasgow-Bryant-Magnuson midway through the 2nd quarter, and yet when the score tightened the plan became even more focused on running the ball up the gut or on a stretch with Fitz being hit in the backfield exactly when he touched the ball.  When UM had success running the ball, it was with Gardner either off some misdirection/read option or on scrambles; witness a couple of runs in the second half where he just sprinted for solid gains after he tucked the ball.  Yet, on 3rd down and a yard after the Robinson turnover, when a first down probably gets you the win because you only have 16 yards to go and PSU was barely holding on, the call is for Poor Damn Toussaint into the line for no gain and a Gibbons miss. 

That was the game right there, and frankly the perfect microcosm for the way the season has progressed after that win against Notre Dame: the right play is staring you in the face, but the play call that comes in is too cute by half.

Best:  Moving the Ball In the Air ISN’T Illegal?

Gardner returned to his turnover ways in the first half, recording two INTs and a fumble that resulted in 14 points for PSU.  He calmed down considerably in the second half and played a pretty fantastic game, accounting for 361 of UM’s 389 total yards of offense.  If those numbers look a bit familiar, well, you’re not alone.

The funny thing was, after that second interception Gardner played pretty well, especially into the 2nd half and OT, going 11/19 with 2 TDs and also accounting for around 100 yards on the ground.  The Devin Connection was humming along as well, with Funchess sporting a 4/112/2TD line and showing fans that last week wasn’t a fluke.  The first TD was the most Worst Waldo Ever we’ve seen since Illinois and Michigan warped time and space to create an irrational meta-earth on a football field, and despite one or two semi-drops, he was patently unstoppable and (one hopes) a permanent addition to the passing game going forward.  As Adam Jacobi so perfectly noted:

And yet, he also became an afterthought after his second long TD; he didn’t catch another ball and if he was targeted I must have missed it. Gallon had a couple of nice catches in the second half, particularly on the 25-yarder on the last drive, and was the only receiver to catch a ball in OT, both times for 9 yards. Chesson had a rough drop that was a first if he held on, but continued destroying guys on special teams. Dileo had his now-customary one catch, and I think there was an inside screen that went for negative yards because when you are having trouble running inside, the best option is obviously to see if you can screw up your passing game throwing into that area as well. 

All that said, it did feel like Gardner turned a page in that second half, and hopefully this mid-season malaise is dissipating. 

Worst:  You lose that battle. You lose that battle nine times out of ten.

Because I am apparently a glutton, I watch most games with the Liveblog running in one tab and the game thread in the other.  I guess it helps me to feel a part of the gameday experience while I’m sitting on my couch, trying to feel connected to a game that is being played by actors I have no control or agency over. 

Regardless, one thing I noticed throughout the game was the undercurrent of people calling for player X to replace the current starter, usually on offense with Morris and Green taking snaps for Gardner and Fitz.  Mind you, nobody had a freaking reasonable explanation or rationale for these moves, I guess beyond the misguided belief that the “other guys” couldn’t possibly play worse. 

Well, guess what: they undoubtedly would have played worse, possibly way worse, in ways that you can’t even imagine.  Morris is a true freshman, and unlike Hackenberg he hasn’t been playing since day one and gotten into any rhythm with his WRs and TEs.  Last year, he was rather erratic even before his season was cut short by illness, and the practice “buzz” seems to be he isn’t quite ready to lead this team.  Green, the uber-5* back remains a massive work in progress, a guy who needs to lose some weight and figure out how to run after contact, to say nothing of the nuances of pass protection and route running out of the backfield.  They are not busts by any stretch, and I fully expect them to be valuable additions to the team going forward.  But Green has 83 yards on 23 carries, 44 of which came on two runs against CMU and Minny, respectively.  Morris hasn’t thrown a pass since that first game, and facing a competent pass rush I can only imagine how many balls would wind up either 20 rows deep in the stands, directly in a receiver’s gut, or into the waiting arms of defensive backs. 

I know this all stems from the potential of the unknown, the unreasonable belief that you’ll get the card you need on the river for the flush, that the prize behind door #3 is better than cash in hand, or that someone will catch that lob with no time left because, well, it’s happened before. Just like Devin and Fitz weren’t ready for primetime when they stepped onto campus years ago, expecting either Morris or Green to perform adequately, let alone markedly better, than the current starters is reactionary and nearsighted.  In particular with Green, if the guy can’t earn more than a couple of snaps from the coaches against teams like Akron, UConn, and Minny, he’s just not where the coaches need him to be.

Worst:  Hold On

I definitely don’t think this had a major effect on the outcome of the game – that begins and ends with an 80-yard TD drive in 30 seconds to end regulation as well as failing to score after two failed PSU possessions in OT – but my gawd there was some rather blatant holding going on during this game by both sides, though it certainly felt more prevalent on PSU. There was the clear hold on Jake Ryan on Hackenberg’s second short TD pass, where even during Matt Millen’s overly-exuberant telestration you saw him being wrestled to the ground by a beaten tackle, and at least one on that final touchdown drive in regulation that, had it been called, would have probably ended the game. The #Right2Rush4 meme is dead, but it has not helped that officials have seemingly swallowed their whistles on those rare occasions when the rush has been successful.

Best: This is No Longer a Vacation; It’s a Quest!

I’m sure PSU was down to its 60th Left Tackle or something, but Frank Clark had himself a game.  He recorded two of UM’s 4 sacks, recovered both fumbles and had a nifty return for a TD. He now has 3.5 sacks on the year (a career high!), and is displaying just enough production to keep most people drooling over his potential. Now, it should be said that the fumble recovery-TD was caused by Ross slapping away at Zwinak to start the second half, and Clark’s second recovery was gift-wrapped by Robinson failing to hold onto the ball on the end-around in OT.  He is certainly not a disruptive force in the mold of a Martin or Graham of recent vintage, but his numbers have ticked up a bit as the season has progressed, and along with Black and Beyer seem to be forming something resembling a pass rush on at least a couple of downs. 

Jibreel continued his solid season with another sack, and we had a Chris Wormley sighting as he recorded 4 tackles, including a sack and another TFL. I thought Washington held up well inside, and Ross and Morgan joined in to hold PSU to 3 yards a carry if you throw out Hackenberg’s sacks and that ill-fated Robinson run, and it was quite a bit lower before OT when Bolten began “asserting” himself with runs of more than 3 yards. I’m not sure how the rush unit would hold up against a Wiscy, an enraged Carlos Hyde, or super-shifty guys like Venric Mark, but so far UM is in the top-10 nationally against the run both on a per-game and per-rush basis, and that’s without JMFR and a couple of young guys getting their first sustained playing time.  And yes, I recognize that the offenses they’ve faced are not known as grinders save for Minnesota, but looking at the schedule I don’t see many teams that will have much success on the ground.

Worst:  I Hate Tight Ends

Disclaimer: I hate them when they play for the opposition.  Love guys who play for UM and try to quasi-block guys on running downs but instead either whiff immediately or get blown back.  Those guys are my boys.

After last week’s Maxxxxxx-imum TE domination by Minnesota, I had lowered expectations for the LBs when it came to coverage against Bill O’Brien’s crew. That said, when Jesse James beat Ross for the umpteenth time in coverage, I nearly blew my stack. (Luckily, I stuck around so that I could properly blow my stack an hour later). It’s hard to get too angry at a defense that gave up 6.9 ypa on 52% completion that included a couple of crazy throws, and two of those TDs were on very short fields caused by turnovers. But it remains confounding to me that no LB seems capable of keeping up with some large guy running 6-10 yards past the line on virtually every passing play, especially given the fact that the secondary is otherwise pretty solid. Some of that credit should definitely go to Hackenberg for making nice throws, and James had at least 1 diving catch on a misplaced ball, but Mattison and co. need to figure out some way to protect this part of the field even if it means bringing Wilson down more often and removing some protection for the corners. 

Worst:  Maybe I ride, maybe you walk, Maybe I drive to get off, baby

My face that entire final drive in regulation:


The thing was, you can’t really point to anything wrong that the defense did on that drive, save for maybe being a bit too passive only sending three blockers. Robinson’s first-down catch was great body control and the right call in that situation. Then, Felder and Robinson made some amazing catches in tight coverage, and in both cases UM had it sniffed out and had players nearby. I question putting Stribbling on Robinson near the end, but he timed his jump about a half-second too early and, frankly, it was just a great play for the best WR in the conference against a freshman. Maybe Countess plays it a tad bit better, but who knows. As for the Felder completion, that was completed with at least 3 guys within a yard of him, and could just have easily been picked off had it bounced slightly differently. Drives like that happen (witness UTL I, New Math, even that NW game from last year), and sometimes you are on the receiving end of them. 

I guess my issue that whole drive was with clock management on all sides. The referees reviewed seemingly every play, giving a Penn State team without any timeouts a couple of freebies, in particular on that last Robinson catch that wasn’t up for debate and was also not a TD. I would have liked to have seen PSU rush up the field and spike the ball instead of getting some time to regroup, but so be it. And while I’m sure that Hoke had his reasons for calling that last TO, PSU was on the 1/2 yard line and had enough time to run two-three plays even if they tried to run. I’d have preferred he held onto that timeout in case UM needed it on a game-winning FG, but again that is more nit-picking in a game that featured far worse coaching decisions.

As for those who claimed UM shouldn’t have punted on their last drive, that was going to be close to a 50-yard kick, in what appeared to be some windy conditions, and if UM missed it gave PSU great field position for that final drive. This was not a puntasaurus emerging from the primordial ooze; it was a calculated risk that didn’t work out but, honestly, still required PSU to go 80 yards in under a minute. Up to that point, you’d have expected the UM defense to hold up. They had until that point (an average of 20.5 yards and 27 points on 14 functional drives, though admittedly 2 of them were short-yardage TDs).

Worst:  Playing for The Tie in Overtime

I saw some people on Twitter, the Liveblog, and the threads blame Gibbons for this loss; that is absolutely asinine. He made 4/7 kicks, missed a 52-yarder at the end of the game by a couple of feet, had another one blocked because why would the offensive line that can’t block four guys on a run ever be able to block 11 at one time, and a 33 yarder that he probably hits 9 times out of 10. Kickers are not infallible, and I’m sure Gibbons wished he had connected on any of those misses. Still, he scored all of UM’s points in the 4 OTs, and should never have been put into a position to kick 5 high-pressure FGs in about 10 minutes of gameplay.

No, the blame falls squarely on the playcalling in overtime. I don’t really care if it was Borges or Hoke who lost his balls at the end of regulation, but failing to even go for the first down on 3rd an 1 in light of setting up FG position was the worst type of Lloyd-ball.  You know what position FG kickers love the most in overtime?  F’king touchdowns. Or, hell, kicks from the 7-yard line instead of the 16.

The offense had scored 24 points in that second half with a nice mixture of playcalls; in overtime it was basically run-run-run-kick or, for more flavor, pass-run-run-kick. As noted earlier, Devin Funchess was not even targeted in what amounted to 4 redzone possessions, and outside of that dodgy spot on Gallon’s reception I’m not sure Gardner even tried to throw past 5 yards. And the defense forced a TO as well as a missed FG, so it wasn’t even like the playcalling was dictated by PSU scoring TDs or connecting on some kicks. I’m not going to overreact and say Hoke is suddenly some overly-conservative dinosaur from the 1960’s who loves playing with the wind, but in a game where the winning coach said he went to the dagger because he knew his kids weren’t going to hold up, the playcalling by the coaching staff was downright offensive.

Best:  Recalibration

As I noted earlier, one can only hope this loss leads to the team improving and evolving. It always felt like as long as the team kept winning, there would be that little voice in everyone’s head that “well, might as well keep doing what we’re doing” because, honestly, who wants to shake up a winning formula?  Now, with another horrible offensive performance on the ground and a growing sense that this staff just isn’t flexible enough to make the gameplan work with the talent, perhaps they’ll be forced to reevaluate what they have and make it work. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some changes made on this staff in the offseason. At the very least, they’ll need to figure out how to fix the offensive line, as I don’t think “youth” completely explains away the unit behind the 63rd-best rushing offense in the country

5-1 with a tough, crazy loss on the road still means this team has hope; people already discounting UM’s chances need only look at this game to see what can happen when a motivated team plays before its home crowd. The defense continues to impress on most fronts, and looks to be improving as players get more experience and return from injury. The offense is blergh, but it’s been blergh for years now, and still scored 34 points in regulation despite 3 TOs. I never expected this squad to go undefeated, and now they won’t. But they still have the potential to be good this year, and one can only hope this game provides an impetus in that direction.



October 13th, 2013 at 4:03 PM ^

That inside screen was the most WTF moment of the game, even with everything that happened at the end. You summed it up perfectly. Defense stacking 9 in the box? Instead of throwing away from it, let's throw right in the middle of it. They'll never see that coming.


October 13th, 2013 at 5:13 PM ^

Thank you this was fantastic especially that last point.

If this game doesn't make the coaches think and recalibrate (like I don't know using short, easy passes to set up runs as changeups) then there will definitely need to be some thinking in the off season. This season is not a bust yet and nearly all of the team goals are still in front of it. Heck if we can make it to 9-3 and maybe get a bowl win against a decent team, which let's face it will probably be top 10 because this is the Big Ten where we play the number 2 SEC team with the number 4 BIG team, I would consider this season to be fairly successful.

Let's go and bring on Indiana.


October 13th, 2013 at 6:27 PM ^

My only real issue with game management was the hole Michigan found itself in the first half, when it seemed to be operating OK and Gardner put things in crisis management with misreads on pass coverage. That will happen. 

But even so, Michigan wasn't giving up much except short-field scores after turnovers, which they failed to capitalize on when they got them. Not scoring on those missed opportunities to me was the real issue that turned this game. And the reason I dwell on it is becasue Michigan under Gardner has been so successful in converting mistakes and redzone scoring chances. 

Nothing silences a crowd like a TD after a home team turnover. Michigan had that after a nice pick on the outside by Jarrod Wilson, who btw, played a very nice game. 

My other gripe on the last-second drive is not so much about the insertion of Stribling, who was put in because of his size and speed and as noted, was all over his coverage, except for some great catches and a mistimed leap that set up the tying score. But my question is, why is he playing in that situation instead of earlier. Michigan did a good job of taking Robinson away most of the game, and then get beat by the best receiver on the team instead of some hulky tightend who can be covered by Stribling. 

I'm guessing it was just a consequence of the deep zone positioning. 

I could understand this staff's choice to run the clock down and force PSU to use up its timeouts, but again the failure to beat this team when chances were there and you have the ability and players to do it is mystifying. What legacy is being protected. You play to win the game, not just survive. 

It's funny how aggressive you get when you are behind and how impractical aggressive play-calling seems when you are trying to protect a lead. I mean why not a jail break blitz? They scored anyway. You would have saved some time and a timeout. 


October 13th, 2013 at 6:49 PM ^

It was just one of those games; I know it's cliche but it just happens sometimes.  Sure, it would have been nice had they held on for the win, but until OT I had no real complaints with how the game was being played save for the continued misconception that this team can run the ball in a conventional manner. 


October 13th, 2013 at 6:52 PM ^

Oh yeah.  It was an insane play by both guys.  Farha got lucky on the river, but Negreanu had to have balls of steel to lay down that hand.  I've seen him read a couple of other guys like that.  Honestly, either of them could be the OC; I personally like the idea of a chain-smoking Sami Farha on the sideline just staring at Devin between plays.


October 13th, 2013 at 9:04 PM ^

I charted about 60 of the offensive plays. We did have trouble running up the middle, but we usually gained at least a yard or two. The majority of the losses (-3, -4, etc.) came on the stretch plays where we take forever to get to the edge and the defense can send their DBs up in run support, and our weaker O-linemen and TEs get pushed back five yards. That play should just be removed from the playbook. If they were setting up some sort of counter to that play, OK, I'll take no gain every now and then, but they don't have any counters. At least they didn't run any against PSU.


October 13th, 2013 at 9:43 PM ^

I'll take your word about the running plays; I agree that the stretch seemed absolutely lost out there, especially once Lewan went out.  And the next time we see an honest-to-god counter on those plays will be the first.

I still do think that the inside running was in trouble as the game progressed.  I'd have hoped that the team could get more than a couple of yards up the middle, but I guess that is just the reality of the running game right now that 1 yard and a cloud of dust is considered a victory.


October 14th, 2013 at 2:02 AM ^

UM only had the ball 2x after they took the 10 pt lead.  PSU received the kickoff and went down the field and kicked a FG.  UM then got the ball back with 5:45 seconds left.  They took almost 5 minutes off the clock on that drive.  I completely agree that once they got inside the PSU 30, they shit the bed but up until then that almost been a picture perfect drive to end the game.


October 14th, 2013 at 8:34 AM ^

I definitely agree that the last drive worked to an extent, but at the same time it bothered me how conservative the playcall came as it pertained to running the ball.  Honestly, had they even just run some designed QB plays or some scrambles, I think that would have been more understandable.  But I think I got a bit too harsh on that last drive; I remained pissed about every playcall into OT.


October 14th, 2013 at 2:19 PM ^

and run the clock out, especially to rid PSU of its timeouts, which worked. And if that's what you want to do, then once you've got them out of TO's, put the hammer down on getting a first down to end it or scoring. Even if you don't make it, you have a closer field goal try. 

Now, I always believe, and I don't know why coaches don't have someone track this, that in the course of a game certain plays work or aren't defended well, and if you go to plays that your team executes effectively or have worked sufficiently, those are the ones you call when you must make the line to gain to win the game. 

But I don't understand why when in the past, Hoke has come to Gardner's aid, and called a timeout to save field position and give his kicker a chance to win the game with a field goal, which became the strategy going forward after putting the team in a no-man's situation and relying on a pooch kick.

And here's an idea why not line up as if you are going for it on fourth down and then motiion into punt formation. Do something to draw them offside or even fake a field goal. You know every other team would try that on Michigan. Without a doubt, MSU and OSU would do it. 

Michigan demonstrated character on Saturday. They are a resillient team. They make a lot of mistakes and they had been good enough to overcome them. They should have Saturday. 

Trickery is part of the game. You don't always have to overpower your opponent to win. Sometimes when you are more creative in pressure situations, you win because the opposition is betting you won't go there. Michigan never goes there. And being stubborn and arrogant will get you beat when you act like it doesn't matter. 


October 14th, 2013 at 2:27 PM ^

There is way too much talent with 2 excellent recruiting classes in a row not to outclass most of the opponents the rest of the season.  There are just some clock management issues to fix.  This could very easily be a 6-0 team right now and we'd all be talking about how the season could be finished unblemished.


October 14th, 2013 at 2:39 PM ^

Can't bring myself to talk about the game, so only one thing to add to this conversation...Better Off Ted is one of the most underrated shows of the last 10 years!