[EDIT] You know it's been a long season since this was originally titled "Maryland". Just banking these beforehand, I guess[/EDIT]
One of these days I'm going to put in less work on writing these than the coaching staff did in preparing for the game. They just keep setting the bar so low, though.
Best: Semi-competent loss
It's come to this, hasn't it. Not moral victories or BS like that, but after being destroyed by a cadre of mid-level BCS teams and Notre Dame, Michigan finally looked semi-competitive against another BCS team. And Rutgers is at least a bowl team, something Michigan sure isn't right now. I always figured Michigan would have a close loss like this during the year, but the expectation was that it would be a rare occurrence of bad luck and incompetence instead of, I guess, a sign of growth and competence in year 4.
Ugh. Moving on.
Worst: Reset Doesn't Exist
I recently finished reading Console Wars, a sometimes-laborious-but-interesting read about the history of Sega, Nintendo, and (a little bit of) Sony and the video game industry they helped revive in the 80s and 90s. It has its flaws from a narrative perspective, but what it does highlight so well is the evolution of video games from quarter-eating arcade cabinets in pizza parlors and movie theaters to the multi-billion dollar industry have now, spurred on by improvements in technology as well as creativity and game design. The book doesn't go into great detail, but another major innovations was the idea of continued gameplay, of "saves" that allowed players to start the game back up from an earlier time but not having to reset from the beginning. It made the games more fun and allowed more immersion in the narrative; the player had a history with the game and so by starting around the same place later on, that connection wasn't lost through the redundancy of replaying previously conquered levels. And during the game, when everything went to hell, you could return to an earlier, better state and try it again. Suddenly, every misstep wasn't, well...
And this advance brought along some quirks. As a kid who grew up in the era of NES/Genesis/SNES cartridge rentals from Blockbuster Video, it was always a bit of a mixed bag when picked up a game for the weekend. If you were lucky, some guy was 3/4 of the way done with A Link to the Past and you could see how the game ended; if not, you had a cartridge with a busted save battery and you had better hope your mom never turns off Secret of Mana for the weekend (And yes, I know you can always start a new game, but 8-year-old me wasn't above using a leg up if it was presented). But if you did continue an earlier game, you were implicitly endorsing the decisions, and repercussions of those actions, from the player(s) before you. Yeah, Cecil Harvey may be totally powered up, but he's also rolling with a Mage and not an awesome Thief, and there's no easy way to correct for that. It's great to have a chance to influence the future, but it comes with all the history and baggage that you had nothing to do with but now informs all of your decisions going forward.
I'm not going to comment much on the past week; I've said my piece about my issues with the tenor of the movement but I agree that change is necessary going forward; win out or lose out, Hoke and Brandon can't both be here in 2015. Practically speaking the coach being let go is easier but probably more damaging, at least in the short term, because the costs of the transition are so high (coach search, player attrition, recruiting, etc.), especially for a program that seems to have been paying them for 8 years now. Hoke is most likely over his head, but he has pieces of a good staff and I still hold that his ceiling is a competent program that wins 8-9 games a year; considering where the sad state the team has been for years, that would be considered a massive improvement. He isn't a long-term solution, but he can be a nice transitional coach to the next hire and helps make UM way more appealing than the tire fire it is right now. Getting rid of Brandon, though, is holistically much better for the school and has a less direct effect on individual teams, not just football, and would help quell the masses to a greater degree than just bringing in a new guy to run the football team. I'm not sure, though, if the school administration is ready for such a heady task given the fact Schlissel is new the job himself and seems less interested in dealing with athletics than Bollinger and Coleman before him. And has been pointed out a couple times already, how do we know he's not going to pick an equally-bad replacement for Brandon.
Regardless of how the next stage in Michigan athletics plays out in the coming months, the incoming parties are going to walking into a situation that is as fractured and toxic as I've seen in all my years following Michigan athletics. People talk about 2007 as a bad environment, but that was mostly tied to wins and losses by the football team; nobody marched through campus because Carr lost to Appalachian State. RR wasn't made to feel particularly welcomed by some of the purported old guard, but Michigan fans had not yet welcomed this little guy into their lives, so spirits were still reasonably high.
|I'll just set my bags on down over here|
When Hoke arrived in 2010 the program was mired in its first sustained stretch of struggles both on and off the field in most fans' lives, but there was still optimism that with a new AD (remember how much we loved Dave Brandon? Ah, it was a simpler time when "You may resume your unbreakable faith in David Brandon's pimp hand." rang true) and Hoke was so Not Rich Rod, and that feeling only intensified with that 2011 season and the solid recruiting that followed.
But now? Unless the new head coach's name begins with "Jim Harbaugh" and ends with "combined with John Harbaugh to create Mecha-Harbaugh", it isn't going to be pretty. Michigan fans have already lived through the hot-shot outsider as well as the "program" guy accepted by the old guard; the next coach isn't going to be able to play either card, and it's a pretty small deck to begin with. This site has chronicled a number of the top candidates, and I've heard everyone from the improbably (Miles) to the gotta-be-trolling impossible (Tressel, Narduzzi). Obviously winning quick and consistently will be the most important, but the next leader of Michigan football is going to have to do it largely without the benefit of the doubt, or at least show marked improvement early on to the bulk of a fanbase burned out by sustained "growing pains".
The environment around this program is terrible, and while change is a necessary antiseptic, it doesn't wipe away the damage already done. The Michigan "brand" is junk right now; Brian spoke about how "THIS ISN'T MICHIGAN" as it relates to the handling of Morris's injury, but what IS MICHIGAN is a bunch of pissed off fans and students angry not just at the current administration but the world. People have their multitudinous reasons for supporting this team, but most of the fandom is rooted heavily in Michigan's consistent winning (and consistency and stability overall) for over a century. It hasn't always been an elite program, but a consistent plugger with occasional spurts of greatness is still high praise, and the program has historically been above the muck and grime that has marred most of other schools (the sanctions passed down because of the Freep "investigation" stung even more because they were the first in Michigan's football history).
Michigan isn't a "winner" anymore. It's not the home of the "Leaders and the Best" anymore either; it's the home of retreads and sycophants, administrative incompetence, wasted potential, and empty suits looking for fireworks and empty headsets not knowing how a clock works. That doesn't mean Michigan is doomed to mediocrity, as every new coach and AD means another chance at redemption and a return to the school's place in the upper-echelon of college sports. But the road back is getting longer and longer, and every step back by the current regime is just another one the next guys need to retake. Player development will likely regress and will need additional attention, recruiting will struggle a bit as different offensive and defensive systems require different players while (hopefully) integrating the current ones as best as possible, and new coaching philosophies will need to be conveyed to college kids who will need to forget what they've been taught for years.
It isn't going to be pretty, and barring a miracle, it is going to take time. The next coach is going to be taking over for a guy who wasted a bunch of goodwill and resources on "toughness" without focus, and the next AD is going to inherit a jaded fanbase that feels ignored and abused by a guy who thought fireworks, noodles, and bitchy emails were good business practices. But unlike in video games, these men and women don't have the option to hit reset, and because of that we need to be patient as they figure out what level they're on and why they don't have any more mana.
Hoke mentioned in the post-game press conference about the resiliency of the team, and it is hard to deny that the team didn't fall apart like it had in previous weeks. Part of that was undoubtedly due to Rutgers being Rutgers and failing to convert on a couple of long drives in the second half, but Michigan didn't let Rutgers run away after that late halftime score, and answered right back after the Knights took a 26-17 lead. And after forcing Rutgers to punt following Michigan's last score, it looked like a team that could absolutely pull out a close win on the road. It's still Rutgers, but given the team's struggles under Hoke it would have been a pretty substantial win.
In particular, I think we should all recognize the performance put forth by Devin Gardner. A week after being benched and basically throw onto the scrap heap, and facing a solid pass rush behind a leaky line, he performed admirably. That interception was pretty terrible and he had a couple of other throws that were off or thrown into double or triple coverage, but he also kept plays alive with his feet, and when the offense belatedly started to run most plays out of the shotgun looked a bit like his old self. It wasn't enough to win, but this performance put into even starker contrast the lunacy of last week and playing Shane Morris. It also, sadly, shows just how much trouble the offense is probably going to be in next year unless the line becomes markedly better. Gardner kept drives alive with his mobility and slowed down the pass rush a but, but without an established run game a less mobile QB like Morris would have been flattened early and often.
Worst: I Don't Understand Reviews Anymore
The refs were all over the map in this game; Michigan had 3 holding calls where probably only one was bang-bang, while Rutgers got called for 2(!) hands-to-the-face calls on defense and 3 personal fouls though not a single holding call despite Willie Henry basically carrying a Rutgers guy on his back a couple of times. Michigan also received a gift spot on a 2nd-down run by Smith that sure seemed to be stopped short and didn't get called for a facemask on a Gary Nova sack.
But that clusterf*ck on Darboh's 3rd-down play takes the cake. Hoke should have challenged the spot instead of calling a TO and then challenging, but given how he handles normal game situations that shouldn't surprise anyone. That said, everyone who saw that play except the video reviewers thought it was a catch, and it was weird seeing the catch be overruled by the referee who seemed farthest away from the play. We've seen tons of those types of sideline catches count before, and if anything Darboh made it look worse because he inexplicably tried to reach out for the first down after he was past the sideline and the ball popped on when it hit the ground.
I know, I know, Michigan deserves blame for playing so poorly that they needed that break late in the game, but it was still a bad call. And it put Michigan is a tough spot where they had to either try a 56-yard kick (which had about a 2% chance of working against a team that leads the country in blocked kicks) or going for it on 4th-and-8. Personally I would have tried to get the first over taking such a long shot, but neither option was appealing.
|It was either this or Liz Phair|
So yeah, pass defense kinda sucked this game. I know they were down Peppers to start and lost Jeremy Clark in the second half, but this was still a terrible performance by the defense given the fact that Gary f'ing Nova was the opposing QB. True, a couple of his throws were the type that happen against good coverage, but far too often Rutger WRs and TEs had 2-3 yard cushions on short passes, allowing them to either break tackles for extra yardage or even just fall down for the first. This was especially true on 3rd down, where Rutgers converted 8 of 16. Normally you'd say "50% conversion rate isn't horrible", but when you are allowing Rutgers to get to 16 3rd downs on only 10 meaningful drives, it also means you aren't kicking them off the field much either. Rutgers had 3 drives of 10 or more plays, and all of them featured multiple 3rd-down conversions. To make matters worse, the ghost of GERG had apparently been awaken from its eternal slumber, as a number of these conversions were on 3rd and long. Early in the 2nd quarter it was Gary Nova juking Bolden for 20 yards on 3rd-and-16 deep in Rutgers territory, and later it was a 26-yard pickup on 3rd-and-9 and a very simple dink-and-dunk for 7 yards on 3rd-and-4. Ultimately those drives ended in punts, but in a close game the loss of field position was felt immensely.
The passiveness shown in coverage remains troubling for a number of reasons, but most especially because there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason for when it is deployed. Sometimes corners line up 2 yards off the receiver on 1st down, and then on 4th down and 3 yards Ramon Taylor is giving a WR oodles of real estate; only saving the conversion because of a nice hit that threw Grant off a bit as the ball arrived. The seams are constantly open, and even though the windows may be small they exist so consistently in coverage that most QBs can hit them with regularity. It's feels like in Madden when you just let the computer pick the defense and they settle on some generic cover-2 that doesn't really matter to you because you are always rushing from the outside with JJ Watt. Unfortunately, the pass rush isn't getting there and all that cushion is inviting lots of short completions with copious YAC. There are still some great playcalls and performances at times, but the pass defense again seems like a B+ outfit on a team that expects/needs an A performance every week.
Playcalling arguments given, this in no way overshadows the insanity of Gary "Wrecking Ball" Nova throwing for record-setting yardage. It's a cheap CS joke, but I looked up the number and I couldn't find it anywhere on the internet. And it was a holistic failure by the defense; everyone will point out that Countess was burned on the 80-yarder to Turzill and failed to stay with Tsimis on the score to end the half, but this entire secondary has 1 interception and that courtesy of a duck by Miami. The linebackers get lost in coverage far too often, the defensive line can't generate consistent pass rush, and the safeties are so thin and inexperienced save for Wilson that they either dive toward the line too quickly or play too tentatively and let too much happen in front of them. I'm sure not having a guy who actually played/coached the secondary previously trying to install a very intricate defense doesn't help, but (not to sound cliche) sometimes players just need to make plays. I don't know the exact defensive playcalls or how these kids are being coached, but I kinda of doubt it entails trailing WRs for 4 yards or biting on double moves every time. It is particularly jarring to see a senior like Countess, who coming into the season looked like a competent DB at worst, seem absolutely lost out there. And while we cam talk about his lack of closing speed or ability to stay with speedy receivers, but he obviously was able to hold up reasonably well (Lockett aside) until this year. It's likely a combination of confusion amongst the players and learning a new system that isn't expertly understood by the staff, but a game like this should not happen.
Worst: I HATE Prevent Defenses
Now, I recognize that there are many different types of formations and playcalls at the end of the half that are designed to bleed clock in exchange for yardage, but this year's defense seems absolutely incapable of closing out a half without giving up points. Last week Minnesota marched down the field for a late score, Utah marched down 54 yards in 16(!) plays for a 38-yard FG, Notre Dame before that scored an incredibly easy TD in about 50 seconds to really pull away at the half of that game, and now Rutgers went on an interminable 11 play, 75-yard TD drive in 1:21 (!!) to take the lead right after UM had surged ahead. It was a weird drive to be sure, but Michigan just kept conceding yardage without putting much pressure on Nova, and even when they did get a free blitzer (Frank Clark on 3rd-and-goal), Nova got free and threw the TD. All four of those drives had a huge impact on the games, and it isn't too much a stretch to say that each of those games could have turned out differently had Michigan had held without giving up points.
The team's close management at the end of halves is stupefying, and it further magnifies how terrible UM is at tempo that multiple teams can run up and down the field on them at pace while Michigan can barely run a 2-minute offense in 4. There is a fine line between aggressiveness and recklessness on defense, but Michigan is far behind that line on the passive side that it is killing whatever chances they have to enter halftime with any sense of momentum.
Worst: Fungible Funchess
No to be the bearer of bad news to the coaching staff, but (a) they aren't going to be around next year, and (b) even if they are, Devin Funchess probably isn't. So I see no reason why they continue to "save" him during long stretches of this game. Funchess had 3 catches in the first quarter and then had 2 catches in the 4th quarter, with the only substantial one being a 17-yarder on the last drive for Michigan hat got them deep-ish into Rutgers territory. Funchess is probably a bit hurt and teams are obviously shifting their coverage to him, but no corner on the Rutgers sideline is taller than 6 feet, or 1/2 a foot shorter than Devin. What's the worst that is going to happen if you just throw it up to him - you already had micro-Megatron with Hemingway in 2011 and that worked out swimmingly.
Only MSU and maybe ND and Minnesota have secondaries that should be able to keep up with Funchess, and yet every non-Appalachian State team has been able to bottle him up reasonably well. I'm sure Funchess will explode for 200 yards against OSU when the team is 4-7, but it feels like a waste of a supremely talented player.
I've made most of these complaints/observations before in other games. So here they are in short doses.
Best: Lollipop Fake Punts
Michigan caught one huge break when Rutgers called that fake punt in the second quarter. It was actually a good call, as Michigan was scrambling and allowed the punter to escape behind them to the other side of the field. What saved them, though, was the pass back to the punter with more hangtime than any of UM's punts in this game. You could see the Rutgers punter stare down the swarming Michigan players while the ball just hung in the air and just kind of concede defeat. It was glorious.
Best: The Defensive Line
I saw some internet tough guys calling out Frank Clark for failing to bring down Nova when he had a free-ish run at him to end the half, but otherwise I thought the line did reasonably well. It still can't generate consistent pressure (2 sacks notwithstanding), but it held Rutgers to just under 100 yards rushing if you excise sacks, and that includes the one 20-yard scramble by Nova alluded to before. They also blocked a PAT and generally looked competent with an effective rotation. It's not a dominant unit by any stretch, but it feels like the one part of the defense you can rely on to perform consistently every week.
Worst: Still Waiting
Neither Green nor Smith provided consistent performance in this game. Green averaged 6.2 ypc, but that number is goosed by a low number of carries (14) and two 20+ yard runs and not much else. Green had a great run on the first drive and then another good run on the last UM scoring drive, but that was about it. Smith had his moments and scored another TD, but he also looked indecisive at times and, like Green, didn't always identify the hole quickly. It led to a bunch of stutter-steps and change-of-directions that might work in high school but lead to minimal gains, at best, in college. Hayes continues to look plausible without being realistic, if that makes any sense. He'll get a nice run or short pass and flash some speed, but then you look at the stats and he's barely being used and most of his big runs/plays come on long downs where the defense is conceding some green. But both Green and Smith show just enough hints of explosiveness, of putting it together and being solid college running backs, that it is hard to give up on them yet and hope Isaac turns it around. It probably doesn't matter given the upcoming coaching changes, but this team desperately needs to establish some identity running the ball, or at least figure out what each guy is good at and try to get some run with that instead of this "back by committee" approach that doesn't seem to work for anyone. This is especially true with Gardner back there, as he forces the defense to stay honest and not commit defenders to stop the run so quickly.
Meh: The Offensive Line
This was a horrible matchup coming into the game, as Rutgers led the nation in sacks and Michigan's line led the nation in broken television sets, but they only gave up 3 sacks and the aforementioned holding calls were a mixed bag. Michigan was able to sustain drives unlike in weeks past, and I haven't seen a coach so excited/satisfied about a TD drive like Hoke was following Michigan's last score since I learned about the dangers of "pep pills."
At the same time, the line is a victim of its past at this point. You can see Gardner step back in the pocket and immediately start to worry about getting a helmet in the ribs. At least one of those sacks was a "coverage" sack because Gardner just gave up after his first option was covered and started looking to escape despite the fact he had time. The line is improving in fits and spurts, but at this point they've broken to QBs and I'm not sure how that will change between now and 2015.
Worst: Somebody Count for Gawd's Sake
Another week, another 10 guys on the punt team. At least this time it was a return, but it remains a bewildering problem for this team. I presume that people on the punt team know they are on the punt team. How about those 11 guys always run out on 4th down and let's see what happens. I swear at some point this year Will Hagerup is going to be on a bicycle behind the bench and nobody on the Michigan sideline is even going to notice.
PSU can't really defend all that well, can't block anyone's pass rush, can barely run the ball, and relies almost exclusively on Hackenberg keeping them in games with his arm. Plus they've looked pretty bad on the road. Thus, I fully expect Michigan to give up 500 yards through the air and for every cornerback to be burned on a double move by anyone in a white helmet. Last year's game was Hackenberg's coming-out party, and even without Robinson he looks competent when he gets time in the pocket, or as we like to say around here, Michigan's usual pass rush.
At the same time, Michigan is minus 13 on the year in terms of turnovers; they are bad but certainly not THAT bad. If there are 90,000 bodies in the stands it will be a miracle, but I suspect they'll be treated to (sadly) Michigan's last home win of the year. I want to be wrong about the year, but both IU and Maryland have good enough offenses to beat UM, and while I expect Michigan to not have too much trouble scoring, they probably won't be able to keep up. So this game is essential for any faint hopes of a bowl game, and I expect the team will rally under the lights.