Then and Now (Part 1: What Just Happened)

Submitted by DocV8 on November 25th, 2008 at 3:19 PM

Now that the 2008 football season is mercifully over, many of us are using this blog as a place to vent, analyze, rationalize, and commiserate. I think it helps us through the grieving process. And it's just one more service provided by our kindly proprietor -- thanks, Brian. Since you've provided the space, here goes nothin'....

It's really remarkable that as recently as August 2007, we were throwing the term "national championship" around. Jake and Mike and Chad all came back for their last year... it was gonna be great.... And then the team started and ended badly, and the 2007 season kind of felt like a waste of everybody's time, right up until the exciting bowl victory over Tebow and Urban Meyer redeemed the year and ushered in the era of un-Lloyd-Ball. That bowl win was a bit like an ice cream dessert that makes you forget the unidentifiable things you just ate at an ethnic restaurant.

Then came the whirlwind. RR was hired. Name-calling and allegations and litigation followed. Players were lost through defection and abandonment. The buy-out was settled. On the field, the Spring Game showed us nothing. Summer camp began and ended in a blur of gee-look-at-all-this-new-found-media-access. Puff-piece videos appeared daily on, and it was there, in retrospect, that the first "real" hints of offensive weakness came to light. I remember some of the defensive linemen talking in August, while joking about their new Barwis-ized performance in the weight room, about how the defensive unit largely embraced the thesis (put forth by pundits and fans) that it would have to hold down opponents' scoring to give Michigan a chance in most games. (Note: as of 11/24/08, we're ranked 90th in scoring defense.)

I've been following Michigan football for almost 35 years. I'll write more about that in Part 2 of this essay, but for now I'll just say that everything in my experience told me, after seeing the Utah and Miami games, that this was going to be a losing season. So I was psychologically prepared quite early for what actually transpired (though not as early as some of you were, I'll admit!). It brought back memories of 1984....

Yes, unfortunately, I remembered that Michigan football had once before run the experiment of "what happens if we have no quarterback who is ready to play at the Division 1-A level?" (Substitute "FCS" or whatever stupid name they have now for 1-A.) In 1984 Jim Harbaugh led the Wolverines to a 3-1 start before breaking his arm while trying to dive on a fumble in the MSU game. Chris Zurbrugg was forced into action at QB. Michigan lost that game and went on to defeat only one team with a winning record (Illinois) the rest of the way. A 7-point loss to BYU in the Holiday Bowl gave Bo his only non-winning season record at 6-6, and gave the Cougars the national championship. Harbaugh, of course, healed up and was subsequently a Heisman finalist.

I realize the game isn't exactly the same as it was 24 years ago, and I realize that the QB position was only one of many issues facing the 2008 team, but the 1984 results still serve as an indicator of what might be expected to happen if the only capable quarterback is lost on an otherwise-intact team. The '84 squad went 3-5 in its last 8 games.

Although we didn't know it in August, the 2008 team lacked basic competency not only at QB, but in everything not involving punting or defensive line penetration. (If you want to quibble about placekicking and kick coverage, fine.) Take away Zoltan the Beneficent and the Graham/Jamison sack/TFL machine, and Michigan doesn't crack the top 50 in any other team statistical category. Given that context, it's actually interesting to contemplate how close this team came to matching 1984's 6-6 record. Three more wins would have done it, and I would argue that there were exactly three losses this year where the outcome hinged on a single play:

  • Toledo -- missed 26-yd FG attempt at the end (would have gotten into OT at least)
  • Purdue -- kill either the fake punt or the hook-and-ladder, and we probably win
  • Northwestern -- if Warren's INT return isn't blown dead, it ties the game and changes the momentum

Knowing what we know now, we can say that 6-6 would have been a pretty good achievement for these guys, and whether or not you buy into the theory of single-play differences, all three of the games just mentioned were well within reach.

That actually gives me some hope for 2009. That, and the return of Zoltan and B-Graham (we hope), who represent the two greatest statistical strength areas of 2008. If the team can focus on and address several of its weakest areas, a 6-6 record seems like a very reasonable expectation next year. There are some major areas where I have doubts, based on present and future personnel, about how much progress can be made before next September: QB and O-Line are the two that come to mind first. I can tolerate quite a bit of upheaval and confusion related to the whole new-coaches/new-scheme situation, but there are a few things that really stick in my craw for 2008:

On Offense

  1. Turnovers -- 18 fumbles lost, and 12 interceptions?! At Michigan?! Every loss this year went with an even or negative turnover margin. Either the coaches aren't willing to teach basic ball protection techniques, or the players aren't willing to learn them, or else you just have a bunch of young men whose minds are going in so many dozens of different directions that they can't focus on first things first.
  2. Failure to achieve high tempo. The metric here is the skip-ahead-30-seconds button on the remote control for my DVR. All the emphasis in the late preseason was on conditioning and playing fast in the spread, regardless of the plays being called. Well, I haven't watched the OSU game (and probably won't), but against Northwestern, in the 11th game of the season, the skip-30 button tells me that we were playing significantly slower than the Wildcats through much of the contest. Pressing the button at the end of a Michigan offensive play typically results in the two teams lined up for the next play, with Michigan 3-5 seconds from snapping the ball. Pressing it at the end of a Northwestern offensive play typically results in seeing the next play already in progress, or even finished.

On Defense

  1. Poor play up the middle. If you, as an offensive coordinator, could devise a handful of plays that required mobile pass coverage by the linebackers and/or required the safety to make a critical coverage or run-support decision or take a particular angle on the ball, you were largely assured some 50-yard gainers against Michigan's defense. We lack consistent Division-1-A-level play at safety.
  2. Corners rendered ineffective by "schemes." Notre Dame made our coverage scheme look silly by running a one-receiver deep route. Northwestern defeated it (for their final touchdown) by running a 3-man deep flood. There is something fundamentally wrong when you drop 5 guys into coverage on 3 receivers, and then end up with only the two safeties covering those three receivers 20 yards downfield. Trent and Warren are known to be reasonably capable cover guys. There is no way, given the pressure that the front four were able to bring, that this team should have ended up 81st in passing efficiency defense.

On Special Teams

  1. Turnovers -- see above. We lack a Div. 1-A kick returner.

The outcome for 2009 will depend on how well the glaring deficiencies can be addressed. Fixing the turnover problem and raising the level of QB play to something like basic Big-Ten competency would probably be sufficient to achieve a .500 record. But we won't be back into championship contention until the additional holes at safety and kick returner are plugged, and critical aspects of the offensive and defensive schemes (such as tempo and pass coverage) are really and truly "installed." Continued improvement on the O-Line is also a requirement.



November 25th, 2008 at 3:56 PM ^

I think this year proves what happens when the worst QBed team in program history (1984 after the JH injury) combines with the worst giveaway team in program history (1987).

Results, not good. bring up Chris Zurbrugh in 1984, but dont forget Russell Rein playing a lot too in the wake of the JH injury.....of course, it did not matter which one played.


November 25th, 2008 at 4:16 PM ^

"That bowl win was a bit like an ice cream dessert that makes you forget the unidentifiable things you just ate at an ethnic restaurant."

Eff you for that racist comment. Are you from Ohio? If so, I guess a Michigan education only civilized you halfway. Well, I guess even that is going a long way, the essay was coherent and readable for the most part.


November 25th, 2008 at 5:57 PM ^

Wow, I didn't quite see that one coming. But c'est la vie on the internets, I guess. Certainly no offense was intended.

For the record, I'm neither racist nor from Ohio, and I'm of the opinion that if we all can't laugh a bit at ourselves and our differences, we stand very little chance of overcoming them.

Flag down Brian and get him to wield the ban-hammer if you're that exercised about it, but I can tell you as someone who has about a dozen close relatives representing two races different from my own, reality is quite different from what you imagine -- at least in this case.


November 26th, 2008 at 11:25 AM ^

Yeah, I didn't see that racist comment coming either. You mentioned ethnic food. How is that racist? It could have been Irish, Polish, German....all kinds of food that don't imply race.

I've been watching Michigan football for 35 years (first memory is the OSU game in '73) so we're in the same boat.

I still have painful memories of the '84 season when Harbaugh broke his arm diving for the ball. I also have great memories of the '85 season and what is probably a Top 5 Michigan team from my lifetime.

That's what gives us hope, right? Hopefully the players, coaches and fans are all fully acclimated to each other at this point. Fix the little things (fumbles, missed bubble screen passes...) and things improve dramatically. Bring in more talent at LB and S and things get even better. Find a QB who can run the Spread Option and the process is complete. Expect better things in '09 (and much better in '10).


November 25th, 2008 at 4:24 PM ^

a lot, but of those 3 games you mentioned that hinged on a single play it is tough to argue we would have won any of them. We could not pick up first downs vs. Toledo and Lopata was obviously not sharp, so we lose in OT. Purdue was well within FG range before the hook-and-ladder. We lose that one. Against NWU, we already showed that we were unable to score once we got it down close and again Lopata was not dependable. Maybe a toss-up at best. I just dont think it is fair to make assumptions with this team, that is a lesson we learned all year long. We showed very little ability to build on momentum at any time. Look at OSU, we get the early Int and did nothing with it.

Again, the rest of the post was awesome.


November 26th, 2008 at 2:20 AM ^

Good post.

Toledo Game: to me the big play was the INT Toledo returned for the TD. The defense held to Toledo to 6 pts. Assuming everything else remains equal in the game, if even even gets a FG out of the possession, they win 13-6. Lopata's FG doesn't win the game, it just sends into OT. Who knows what would have happened then.

Offensive turnovers. I think the stat for fumbles is somewhat misleading cause I'm guessing a good amount of those occurred on special teams. Doesn't make it acceptable, but it wasn't necessarily the offense that was responsible for those. Still needs to be corrected and the amount of fumbles, whether offense or special teams, drasticly reduced.

High tempo: i think part of the reason we really didn't see the high tempo this year was the fact that it was the first year and most players were relatively inexperienced. As the players get more comfortable with the system and more game experience, I think we'll see the quicker tempo.

Safety play: this has been a problem at UM for a while now. I was hoping to see some improvement this year but no luck. I think this problem will primarily be corrected by getting different guys in at safety. I'm not expecting any great improvement from Brown next year.

Probably one of the most frustrating things to me this year was watching team after team rip off huge plays (40+ yds) week in and week out. Carr's teams weren't immune from this problem, but it seemed like the problem was epidemic this year. OSU game great example. The defense is playing really good early on, then BAM - Wells goes 50 yds in one play for a TD. All of a sudden despite a pretty solid effort from the defense, OSU takes a 7-0 lead on one big play. (this pretty much ties in with the poor play up the middle)

I agree with you in that if UM can solve the turnover issue (particularly fumbles) and get some decent QB play, UM could be better just from improvement in those two areas. I think the oline got better as the season went along. Hopefully, with a year of experience in the system and playing on saturdays, we'll see a better oline next year. Not expecting the unit to be dominant, but hopefully definitely better.

My big concern is with the defense next year. DB play and LB play was at best average most of the year, if not below average. There isn't much depth at any of those positions so for the most part, we'll either be watching the same players next year in those positions or underclassmen (maybe true frosh) who lack game experience. After Graham/Martin/Van Bergen the dline rotation is going to be young and inexperienced so I'm not sure how much better, if at all, the defense will be next year. Unfortunately, I see the defensive side of the ball being a 2-3 year project before it's hopefully really good again. Not only do they need to upgrade the quality of play that occurs on the field, they need to build depth at most of the positions. The depth factor is something that will need to occur over time through good recruiting and player development.