Tuesday, November 29, 2011

That is Defining Their Legacy

He's hungry.


You can't blame him; all he's been fed for the past three years is crap.  "Hey Denard, you can't throw."  "Hey Denard, you can't win."  "Hey Denard, you can't play in a pro-style offense."  He has listened to it all since high school when no one knew what to think of him, told him he'd be a corner back or a slot receiver, and he knows they still don't know what to think of him now.  Five-feet-eleven in the spikes he would probably run out of even if they were tied, big million dollar grin that he can't help but constantly wear because he still isn't comfortable with all the attention, and dreads that cover up his name unless someone misses a tackle and he gets a crease     then the dreads and the shoes both hang on for dear life.  He's hungry.  He wants this for the seniors, for his coach, for Michigan.  He's been here before.  Knows the game.  Knows that if you want to walk out a winner you have to turn this:

...into this:

...in the fourth quarter.  He's made the mistakes in the past and watched chances slip away.

This time he made his mistake, but he wouldn't let it define him.  He pushed piles and cut back for more yards and waited impossibly long in the pocket to find a receiver.  He refused to let them be overcome by his mistake, so he finished the game with five touchdowns.

Hey, a man's gotta eat.

* * *

He's smiling.

It wasn't always easy to smile.  He knows that.  He has been through worse things than 3-9 or 5-7 and he knows that there is unfair and then there is unfair.  But he never let it affect him.  He just worked harder than the other guys and went from this to this:

He is the guy that swears in press conferences, makes an entire internet community love the reach-block as if it were as easy to appreciate as its highlight-reel cousins the perfectly-thrown-fade and the open-field-juke, and he routinely leaves linebackers curled up in a heap on the second level as someone else runs past with the ball thankful that mean number 50 is the one leading the way.  Those little guys from Florida or Ohio would follow him anywhere.  He does it because that's how he plays football     the only way he knows how.  You work harder than the other guy in the weight room, study harder than the other guy in the film room, then you line up across from him and administer 60 minutes of hell.  Somebody's got to pay, only then he can smile.

But only for a little bit.  Then it's back to work.

Photo credit: Heiko
* * *

He's relieved.

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
“I’ve always said my dream has always been to catch a touchdown in the Ohio State-Michigan game. I finally did that, so that means a lot to me and my family."

That is what he tells reporters after the game.  This was his dream.

But everything else must have been like waking up from a long nightmare.  He was the last player to come to Michigan that also held an Ohio State offer, and he watched the team he committed to play for fall on hard times from almost the very day he stepped on campus.  He has known nothing else, a senior whose career has been spent in a group of 18-22 year-old college kids collectively trying to claw the program back up from the worst records in school history, the first season he knew as a player.  The whole time losing to that team from Ohio that he turned down.

He is relieved because he worked hard, because it turns out the thing he thought he loved, the thing they all thought they loved when they committed would ask more of them than they could have ever imagine, and in the end he is relieved because they answered that call and left Michigan football in better condition than they found it.

He was the last player to commit to Michigan over Ohio State.  Saturday he got the final touchdown in a game against Ohio State.  His dream come true.

* * *

They're embarrassed.

It may not look like it, but they aren't happy with what happened out there.  They are better than that and they know it.  Everybody knows it, and now people actually listen.  They don't just hear excuses or laugh at the rankings.  This isn't last year.  The stuffed beavers are long gone from the sidelines so is the guy with the silver head of hair and all the confusion.  Everybody else is there, and now everybody is accountable, and it is their defense.

They take pride in it.  All of them do.  That's what he wants.  He wants it to be their defense so he teaches them the best way he knows how then he let's them take control of it.  That's why they are embarrassed.  Because they are better than 34 points allowed.  They are better than missed assignments in the secondary and long third-down conversion scrambles.  They don't settle for being just a good defense, and that is part of what makes them great.

* * *

They're even out there at all.

That was hardly guaranteed for either.  Both have spent the past few years battling through every injury and ailment you could think up.  Broken bones and muscle pulls and bruises and even a case of mononucleosis have stood between them and the field at various times.  Yet they both kept going, let time heal old wounds and came back tougher, stronger.

One of them is a leaper who is second to none at high pointing a jump ball and bringing it down.  He's the one Jim Brandstatter calls Big Play     and for good reason.  You throw the ball impossibly high or into double coverage and it just doesn't matter.  He will get it, then he will fight for more yards.

The other is a tiny Floridian mountain goat that blocks like that piece of dirt you are standing on right there is his and he damn well plans on taking it back.  He showed up "too small" to handle Big Ten football ended up earning his way on the field immediately by being the toughest son of a bitch out there.  Four years later he's still the toughest son of a bitch out there.

And both of them were Out There on Saturday.

* * *

He's arrived.

And he's putting everyone on notice.

He could have fallen by the wayside.  Became another ghost from the second hand accounts of practice that you can almost picture get passed along to guys like Brian as whispers from dark corners of dimly lit parking garages; water dripping into storm drains, traffic off in the distance, and the echo of squealing tires all bouncing through different levels like your reflection in a house of mirrors     distorted sound coming at you from all directions.  Woodward and Bernstein got Watergate.  Brian Cook gets "that kid whose name sounds like he should be playing jazz in Midtown Manhattan in the 50's is really wowing everyone at camp."  All but for the injuries.  The shoulder, the knee, it seemed like he would be one of those players that was only ever healthy enough to be a myth.  Not anymore.  Now he is a thousand-yard back who makes this happen:

And still cuts back into the defender because there are five more yards there, dammit.

* * *

At no point was it easy.  I wasn't supposed to be.

Why would the breaks start now?  This is the game that Michigan wasn't supposed to lose until the game started, and then it seemed like a repeat of every other year.  The Denard fumble, the overturned Fitz touchdown, Will Hagerup encapsulating everything the internet loves about college football in one .GIF.  Why else would Braxton Miller play like the bastard son of Troy Smith and Terrelle Pryor?  Things go wrong when you play Ohio State: Shawn Crable throws a late hit out of bounds, Michigan gains less than 100 yards in a rainstorm, a prevent defense and a nine point lead is shredded in the final eight minutes, a six-win Buckeye team walks away with a three score victory.

This is how Michigan loses to the Buckeyes.

This is how Michigan used to lose to the Buckeyes.

The fact that Michigan won this game is far and away the most important thing to take away.  Michigan won.  Against Ohio State.  That is, and forever will be, enough.

However, few things could make it more meaningful and cathartic than winning despite the misfortune.  Early in the game Michigan forced a fumble on a Buckeye kick return.  The ball floated skyward and slipped past Courtney Avery into DeVier Posey's hands.  It was a harbinger of things to come.  There would be no gimmes this time.  The team was going to have to work even harder.

This season has been one largely of blessings.  Fortunate bounces and big plays at the right time.  If there is one thing that this team has had all season     that is only more notable because of it being mostly absent the last few years     it's a knack for being in the right place at the right time.  Brandon Herron's two touchdown day, jumpball-a-poolloza, the second half against Northwestern, the third-down stops, the fumble recoveries, all of it seemed to happen at the exact right time.  Even in losses Michigan had doors opened for them, golden opportunities in the form of phantom fumbles and lucky bounces, yet the Wolverines simply failed to capitalize on them.

In this game, however, there would be none.  Braxton Miller played the best game of his life, Denard and Hagerup gave up game changing fumbles, and the game-icing touchdown was called back on a review only to be followed by the second game-icing touchdown being called back on a penalty.

If you didn't at least think of 2004 or 2005 or 2006 for an instant after that happened and the Buckeyes got the ball with two minutes left and only down six points, then you obviously didn't watch any of the games.  We'd seen all this before.  Michigan had done all it could and Ohio State was still going to get the chance to steal a victory.

Then something funny happened.  The defense made a couple of plays, Ohio State missed on what would have been the go-ahead touchdown pass, and then all but sealed it with an ill-advised spike on third-down at midfield.  Those are our mistakes.  That is how Michigan loses the Game.  That is how Michigan used to lose the Game.

Finally, Courtney Avery tipped the ball to himself, the whole place went berserk, and I walked around my house grinning like an idiot in total silence for the next half hour.

* * *

They call themselves Team 132.  There were 131 before them and God willing there will be 131 after (who knows what football will look like in 2142 but its hard not to think that Denard Robinson is some kind of evolutionary leap toward the future).  Some of these young men played on the worst team in 129 years.  A little less than half of them were part of the worst defense in 131 years.  Still, they all stayed.  They wouldn't fracture and crumble like the last time.

The win in the Game on Saturday was the first since I was a freshman in college.  At that time I had only met my eventual college roommate and best friend once     as he drunkenly introduced himself by his then-roommate's name at 3am one Saturday night, leading to a month of confusion over which one of them was which.  In the time since we have both graduated and worked a couple different jobs, he got married (an gave me the honor of being one of his groomsmen), and I moved 12-hours away and started writing here.  The whole time we have known each other we bonded over a shared love of Michigan football, celebrated all the wonderful wins, and talked each other off the ledge through the most heartbreaking defeats.  I called him for the last two minutes of the game on Saturday.  It only seemed right.

We throw around the words of our coaching idols a lot, we cite The Team (The Team, The Team), talk about everyone being All-In, and remind ourselves in bad times that Those Who Stay Will Be Champions.  But it isn't us.

On Saturday, those young men lived up to all of it.  They stayed through the worst period of Michigan football any of us have ever seen, they had to live with it all every single day, this wasn't their distraction from real life.  It was real life.  We have heard their stories and grown attached to them and now it is hard to feel anything but happy for every one of those kids.

They stayed, and they got their win over Ohio.
Quint Kessenich:  "How did your seniors define their legacy today?"
Hoke:  "Well, see 'em down there right now, that's defining their legacy."
Kessenich:  "Whats it like for you coach to win ten   "
Hoke: "Aw, I'm so, it doesn't matter, I'm happy for those kids, that's what this game is all about."

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Moving On from Three and Out

(This started out as simply a quick essay on my thoughts about Three and Out, but after the weekend it morphed into something different     and, um, considerably longer.  I'm still not sure if that is entirely good or bad.  You be the judge.)

I studied history at the university.

It didn't start like that.  First it was philosophy, inspired by my father who always had a deep interest in the subject and had studied it himself while attending UofM Flint.  I enjoyed philosophy, but I suspect that was more of a function of how easy I found it.  Philosophy was always my comfort zone.  Writing last minute papers on close readings of Hobbes or Locke was second nature to me.  For a college freshman/sophomore still dealing with a transition away from the structure of high school and toward the freedom of college, something I could largely do while on cruise control was very attractive.

That never changed, but I soon began to realize that a philosophy degree was about the equivalent of a degree in ancient pottery or Ojibwa     it was unjustifiable in a larger sense unless I planned to make a career out of it.  I didn't.  I had taken enough philosophy to be exposed to the grad students in the subject, whose long discussions with professors only vaguely resembled the language I spoke in class.  I was good at philosophy and I knew it.  But they were great, and I knew that too.

Besides, there was always another love of mine: history.

It would be a full year of college before I took a history class, and it wasn't until late in my senior year that I decided to take the three extra classes required to move my history minor into a second concentration.  I'll admit that this switch was partly driven by the fear of being A Philosophy Major* and having to confront the sideways glances that would follow for the next decade when I tried to explain why on earth someone would choose to major in something that didn't easily translate into a 40-hour-per-week office job (So I added a history concentration.  Go figure).  More than that, however, was simply that as long as I could remember I loved reading about history.  When I think of the things I am proud of, academically speaking, in my years before college, I inevitably think of the book on the Civil War that I must have had checked out of the library for two months during fourth grade, a book that I furiously consumed as if it had been written just for me.  Or I think of my first long research paper assignment as a ninth grader when I wrote twelve pages on the underlying causes and the far reaching consequences of the Montgomery Bus Boycott; dozens of notecards that contained hours of research all scattered across the floor in an intricately arranged web that would soon come together on the page before me.  Finally, for a number of poorly thought out personal reasons     not the least of which was a chance to get football season tickets one last time     sticking around Ann Arbor for one last semester was appealing.

Whatever my reasoning, I ended up graduating in December of 2007 with a double major in History and Philosophy.  I could say, "and I never looked back" here, but that would be a lie.  I looked back early and often, but that is another post for another blog.

*(Ironically enough, the fear of a "worthless degree" was one of the things I mentioned to Jonathon Marwill, my adviser in the history department and the professor of 20th Century American Wars     the class that inspired me to dive headfirst into history on the college level.  His advice, and I am paraphrasing here, "If the only reason you are sticking around is to turn a history minor into a second concentration, you're just wasting time and money.  A double major in this is worthless unless you plan on going to grad school in history."  My response might as well have been, "yeah, but...football."  In the end, he was probably right, but I'd like to think I got enough out of my history colloquium to make it worthwhile.  The 2007 football season certainly wasn't as rewarding as I had anticipated.)

* * *

During the tail end of the Great Rich Rodriguez Debate of 2010, I had moved over to write for Maize n' Brew at the request of MnB Dave, a friend and someone who supported my writing from very early on.  It was on that site that I became the last of the Richrod-apologists; at least that is how most of the regular commentariat saw me as.  As the rest of the contributors slowly Had Enough of it all and began to argue for a quick end to the Rodriguez experiment, I would write articles calling for patience, putting offensive numbers into what I thought was proper perspective (not as good as they looked to the advanced stats, but too adversely affected by the horrible defense and special teams), and lamenting, "if we only had a defense."

There was on particular commenter on the site who became incredulous with every new post.  The gist of his  criticisms were always the same: it didn't matter Why Rodriguez was failing, it only mattered That it was happening.  Inevitably this would be the first shot in a long series of comments in which I would offer a litany of explanations as to why there was a disparity between offensive yards and points (youth, first year starter at quarterback, etc.) or why the defense was universally bad against everything (a porous secondary limited the options of the defensive coordinator, and it didn't help that the coordinator in question was Gerg).  He would then counter with the arguments that the offense was bad against anything resembling a good defense (something I still don't buy, but don't care to argue about; water under the bridge and all) and that the specific failings with the defense ultimately came down to Rodriguez no matter what the cause (something that one would have to be pretty myopic to dismiss out of hand).

This would go on and on and on until we both worked our way back to the same impasse: I cared about Why things were happening, he cared That they were happening.  We begrudgingly agreed to disagree, until the next time.

I can't say that his viewpoint is necessarily wrong.  We live in a results based society and it is hard to gloss over the fact that in bare-bones results     wins and losses     Rodriguez was mediocre at best.  However, one day I was fed up enough that I sat down to articulate just why I felt so compelled to break down the failings and successes of Rodriguez as his coaching tenure, unbeknownst to any of us, wound down.

It was history.  Living, breathing history.

What I was watching was a stand-in for the things I learned about in college.  Here were real life conflicts, actions, and motives all played out on the contained stage of a sports arena and press room.  I wasn't watching the rise and fall of an empire, but I was watching a free standing analogy: the rise and fall of a football team.  This turbulent time in Michigan's history was like a stage play in which the scale is smaller and the characters fewer, but the underlying issues: the tension and stubbornness and ulterior motives, all still exist and drive the plot forward.  The whole thing felt like a tragedy**.

And just like with the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement, the Why wasn't just one thing that mattered; it was the only thing that mattered.  That MnB commenter was concerned with the equivalent of high school history*: "The Rich Rodriguez regime began on December 17th, 2007 and ended on January 5th, 2011.  While there he was involved in the battle of the Freep-Jihad, lost three times to the Spartans of East Lansing and Buckeyes of Columbus and he ended with a record of 15-22."

This was multiple choice shit, the kind of history that doesn't deepen understanding for the future.  It is date memorization for the sake of memorizing important dates.  It is rudimentary and shortsighted, and in the end it ignores the one maxim we all hold true about history: he who fails to understand history is doomed to repeat it.

I bristled at the idea of the Rich Rodriguez era being reduced to just a collection of numbers, start and end dates.  There was more to it than that.  Don't tell me what, tell me why.  The whole thing had grown in my mind.  Not only was this three year saga its own mini-history which I could chart along through the months and years, but it became a philosophical battle that attempted to pin down the essence of Michigan Men vs. Outsiders, what exactly constitutes "Big Ten Football", and how many times one man can shoot himself in the face and survive.

Granted, a part of me wanted to be right     not the most noble justification for three years of being an argumentative asshole     but there was also a lot of curiosity. 

*(I know that this is a very disparaging characterization of the whole anti-Rodriguez crowd's raison d'etre, and I do believe that some people on the other side of the aisle had spent just as much time thinking about the Why as I had, only to come to a different conclusion.  Rest assured, this analogy doesn't apply to everyone that disagreed with me.  It only applies to the people who dismissed any discussion of Why out of hand.)

**(I, of course, mean this in a strictly literary way.)

* * *

Luckily for all of us, someone well qualified to parse out the Rodriguez coaching experiment was on hand to witness it all and report back.

I am of course speaking of John U. Bacon's book Three and Out.  I finished it a couple nights ago, in what was just under a week of reading whenever I could find time.  It was simultaneously a hard book to put down and hard to keep going.

Unlike most of the non-fiction that I read, this story was all too familiar to me.  It was fresh in my mind from wounds that were still not healed.  So many mid-season collapses kept fresh by this year's team (briefly, and probably only in the mind of the media and fatalistic fans like myself) teetering on the edge of the same fate.  Every transfer this year takes me back to another player who transferred under similar circumstances during Rodriguez's tenure.  I am still very much chained to the three years of Rich Rodriguez.  Brady Hoke is here, and he has my full support, but that doesn't mean that everything he does isn't judged against the record of Rich Rodriguez (or more appropriately: everything Rich Rodriguez failed to do is judged against the success of Brady Hoke).

There were times I wanted to put the book down.  When Bacon began to allude to a change in defensive coordinators between 2008 and 2009 I wanted to stop.  When the first mumbles of the Free Press story began to crop up I wanted to walk away.  When the back to back games against Illinois and Purdue in 2009 were on the horizon I wanted desperately to look away as if to avert my eyes from a brutal car crash.  Before the mid-season collapse of 2010 I almost put the book down again.  Finally, it was so painful to read the penultimate chapter about the 2010 football bust that I wanted with all of my being to jump inside the pages, and go at the cord to the Laurel Manor sound system like an ax-weilding Pete Seeger in an attempt to change the course of history.

Instead, I kept reading.

Finally, last week I finished the book.  I was exhausted and angry and sad.  Many of my suspicions were confirmed and many events I thought I understood were put in greater context with an inside look at how the players and coaches dealt with them.

I have no grand conclusion; no point by point review of the book.  It was not perfect (as has been widely noted, some of the game summaries are inaccurate     a glaring mistake for a book ostensibly about the games on the field) but if you are a fan of Michigan football, you should read this book no questions asked.  (Although if you are reading this, odds are you already have.)  In the past year I have read a few very good non-fiction books about sports* and this one holds up well.  Bacon is certainly sympathetic to Rodriguez, but the overall conclusion of the book     that this was a collection of individual failures rather than that of one man     is accurate given everything we now know.

The two biggest characters other than Rodriguez are arguably the two ghosts floating around the football facilities     only one of whom by choice.  If this is a book about the presence of Rich Rodriguez as Michigan's head football coach, it is equally about the absence of Lloyd Carr and Bo Schembechler.  Just like with any history, it is easy to wonder "what if" in regards to those two names.  One thing is certain, the story would be a whole lot different.

Writing this around the five year anniversary of Bo's death, it is easy to get caught up wondering how Bo would have handled things.  My deep and profound respect for the man was only made greater by reading Three and Out and hearing just how wide reaching and beneficial his influence on the program had been since his arrival.  It is hard to fault any man for failing to fill his shoes     even someone as beholden to Bo as Lloyd Carr is     because Bo's greatness was almost otherworldly.  He seemed almost capable of being the program's patriarch by force of personality alone, as if the wins and speeches flowed out from his power and influence, not the other way around.  That isn't an easy thing for any man to aspire to, and it would be disingenuous to try.  The very reason Bo was what he was to the program was his complete and utter lack of personal aspiration.  He acted For Michigan.  Everything else came second.

At the same time, however, it is hard not to wonder if the memory of Bo, and his deification within the program was ultimately responsible for the cultural tension between the old guard     mostly Carr's camp     and the new coaching staff.  Most of the clashes that Rodriguez had within the Michigan family were with those from the Carr years, the players who never knew Schembechler as The Coach.  He was simply Bo to them.  His legend had already been written.  They then twisted and distorted that greatness to fit their own desires.  They elevated an ideal     the Michigan man     without understanding what it was.  It became a rallying, a justification to do what they wanted, not to do what needed to be done.

When I was young my father pointed me to his favorite chapter is Aldous Huxley's Eyeless in Gaza.  I have read this chapter dozens of times (though I have not yet read the complete book).  In the chapter Huxley writes about peace and patriotism and the capacity for humans to treat each other in a benign manner.  One part has always stuck out to me:
One of the great attractions of patriotism     it fulfills our worst wishes.  In the person of our nation we are able, vicariously, to bully and cheat.  Bully and cheat, what's more, with a feeling that we're profoundly virtuous.  Sweet and decorous to murder, lie torture for the sake of the fatherland.  
After reading Three and Out it seems to me that the same could be said of school spirit, Michigan arrogance, or whatever you wish to call it.  That we love our university enough to hold it above all others speaks to its deep and profound effect our time there had on each of us who attended classes in Angell Hall or studied for hours in the north stacks or drank cheap beer on Saturday mornings before a football game.  But losing perspective when it comes to school spirit can be dangerous.  When we elevate what it means to be a part of The Michigan Family above the day to day acts: carrying yourself with grace and dignity, doing good works for your fellow man, holding close the opportunities that your connection to Michigan has provided you while doing your best to keep the place you love worthy of the love of future generations.

In my mind, Rich Rodriguez did all of that.  The guilt lies with those who are ever guiltless.  The ones who said "This is Michigan" so as to be xenophobic and closed off and have to this day never thought twice about what was them putting themselves above Michigan.  The Michigan I know accepts everyone.  No one can be a Michigan Man before he steps foot on campus.  It is what you do with your time, how you carry yourself, and how you ultimately give back to the place that has given you the opportunity that matters.

I love my school, but the way some great men and women acted from 2008 to 2010 will forever leave me saddened.  That wasn't the Michigan that I know and love.

*(Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam, The Franchise by Cameron Stauth, and Playing for Keeps by David Halberstam.  I highly recommend all three for basketball fans of any kind.)

* * *

When I finished the book last week it was late at night, but I couldn't go to sleep so I pulled up MGoBlog to catch up on the day's reading.  I glanced over the always stellar Mid-Week Metric before diving into the main course: the Defensive UFR for Illinois 2011.  Optimism, man.  I'm still not wired to handle it.

I was still haunted by the same demons of the last three years: the thought that good games aren't indicative of a larger trend while bad games are almost always a sure sign that the sky is falling.  It is a hard habit to break.

Then, Saturday happened.

I don't mean this to say that with a dominating win over Nebraska that Michigan is Back.  I don't think it is that simple and any discussion of it inevitably devolves into some stupid argument trying to pinpoint if we ever left at all and where Back really is.  Is Back national championships?  We have one in the past fifty years.  Rose Bowl wins?  Hah.  Big Ten titles?

Besides, when people talk about getting Michigan back to where it was, they aren't really saying what they think they are.  Brian at MGoBlog took the words right out of my mouth when he said:

"If this feels like getting back to Michigan, it's the Michigan of your dreams, the Michigan you left back in Peoria when you shipped to Saigon. You've got one good picture of her and she's that pretty every day in an ugly place.
"This Is Michigan" is about the idea, not the reality—at least not a reality from the last 20 years. So far. Days like Saturday inch us closer to the picture in our heads."
That was ultimately the feeling that struck me on Saturday.  Sometime during the fourth quarter as Michigan was slowly squeezing the life out of Nebraska in all three phases of the game I stopped and realized just what I was feeling.

There was no angst, no worry of how this win was going to affect the program in three or four years or if it would be an effective bargaining chip the coach could use later.  I wasn't waiting for the offense to grow up or the defense to build depth or the special teams period.  I wasn't worried about being caught in a perpetual state of ten-wins and a BCS-bowl loss in a fading regime.  I didn't panic that our two score lead wouldn't hold up down the stretch because the team would jump into a prevent defense and go super conservative on offense.  There was no past or future.

It was just a football game.

The last time I felt like that was in 1997.  Before I knew how hard it was to win a national championship, all the things that must go right to even get a chance (just ask Oklahoma State).  Before I knew the weight of preseason expectations and the unpredictability of college football.  Back when I enjoyed each win in the moment for what it was: another opportunity to cheer on the team I loved regardless of all the other crap.

As painful as it was to read Three and Out, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  It was a combination of my love of Michigan football and my love of fascinating history.  But it also wore me out.

So, save me your talk of legacy, of program building or the what-ifs.  I just want to live in the moment for a while.  It had been so long that I forgot what it felt like until Saturday.  

Monday, November 14, 2011

Third and Doom*

*(The good kind of doom.)

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say something that is either so wildly obvious or so naively reductive that I will lose all credibility in the eyes of you, my reader.  Here goes anyway.

It's all about the third downs, man.

I've long held on to third down conversion numbers as a sort of "go to" stat; something that, when looked at in the context of all the other numbers is going to tell me how well or poorly the offense or defense performed.  There is variation, sure.  When you play Minnesota you might not see many third downs because your team is so successful on first and second.  On top of that, some defenses are more designed to "bend and not break" and will necessarily allow more third down conversions as teams move the ball.  And some teams     cough, Notre Dame, cough     may have a lot of success converting third downs against you, but are done in by turnovers of the back-breaking variety.

So yes, I know it isn't a perfect system, but when taken in the context of a game, third down conversion percentage for both offense and defense can paint a great picture of just how good a team played.  Consider the following:

  • Would you have guessed that Michigan's worst loss of the year coincided with its worst day on third down in the Big Ten season? (Michigan State converted 7/14; Michigan converted 3/15; Woof.).
  • Or that Michigan's three most dominant defensive performances in the Big Ten came on days allowing just 29% (Illinois), 23% (Purdue), and 0% (Minnesota).
  • Or that Michigan's defensive third down rate is 40th in the nation right now (36%) while it was 95th last year (43%).  (Although the 2009 defense also posted a 37% allowed rate, good for 40th.  I say this for full disclosure.  I have no idea how that number is so good comparatively, but I do know that the numbers don't include just how crippling some of those allowed conversions were.  So, in that case I'd rather preempt you, dear reader, with evidence of my being an idiot, than have you point it out later).
All of this is going the long way around introducing what has been my favorite part of the 2011 Greg Mattison defensive revival: third down stops.

Over the past few days I have finally gotten around to reading Three and Out, and on Saturday I had a long discussion before the Illinois game began about the book with a friend who is just about as obsessed with the team as I am.  We argued about what the most disheartening loss of 2009 was (I said Illinois, he said Purdue), shared a laugh about the scene in the book where Brian Cook confronts Michael Rosenberg after the Freep-Jihad presser, complained about the lack of discussion of the Shafer -> Gerg transition, and both agreed that the 2008 Utah game might be the most inexplicable thing that happened during the entire Rich Rodriguez era.

Once the game began and the defense came out hot, we both shifted out attention to just how good this team has been on third down, especially third-and-short.  After just having read about a stomach churning third-and-24 conversion that I remember like it happened yesterday, it is strange to see the defense line up to stop a third-and-short conversion and know, I mean know in my soul, that the other team is going to be punting on the next play (or, if coached by Kirk Ferentz, break character and go for it on fourth down to infuriate me).

I mean, that right there is a thing of beauty.  This is what good defenses do.  They demoralize the opponent by refusing to budge even one inch when all the offensive player needs to do is simply fall forward to keep the offense on the field.

So when Illinois lined up in the first quarter in a third-and-one situation at its own 23-yard line, for the first time in years I waited, grinning at what I knew was to come because I had seen it before.  You don't get one yard on this defense without a fight.

It speaks to the job that Greg Mattison has done with this defense that I am more confident in a third-and-one stop that I am third-and-five or more.  Michigan still isn't perfect     no team is     but you can see every time that group steps on the field that the call is right, the effort is superb, and the assignments are carried out.  If another team gets two when it needs one, it isn't because the Wolverines beat themselves*.

More than all the other signs of hope for the future of this defense, from the quick development of freshman like Blake Countess, to the way young players like Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan fix mistakes from game to game to become better players, to the ever evolving series of blitz packages that are confusing the hell out of opposing quarterbacks, the thing that I have been most impressed with is that Mattison has delivered on his promise of the offseason: the team will work to stop the run.  Nothing is more central to that goal than lining up and stopping the other team when both you and they know exactly what is coming, and they dare you to make the play to stop it.

The offense may still be a bumbling mess tied to a  rocket powered cheetah, and Michigan's special teams play is going to haunt me for years like 'Nam haunts crazy old war vets     including fever dreams that are a series of rapid fire shots of Jeremy Gallon muffing punts     but for the first season in years, I can confidently say that the defense is in the right hands.

Now, about that shotgun formation...

*(Isn't always, I mean.  Typical freshman starters disclaimer applies.)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Why Are You Playing Checkers With a Chess Set

Two weeks ago after watching Ohio State and Michigan State play in a game that was one giant bitch-slap to offensive football, I was bouncing around the usual Buckeye blogs to try to find something to help me prove a point to some MSU friends about just why I was still skeptical about the MSU defense being the best in the Big Ten.

What I found was an offensive review of the game that had three subheadings: Back to the Well: The Constraint Theory; Why Beat Your Head Against The Wall?; and Execution Mishaps.  After watching Michigan put up a similarly putrid offensive effort against the Spartans, I am so totally stealing those to help me make sense of just how the offensive game plan failed.

Why Beat Your Head Against The Wall?

Denard Robinson was 2/2 for ten yards after the first offensive series, and he turned the final pass play into a 15-yard scramble for a touchdown.  How did the Wolverines complete these two passes?  Both were quick outs thrown from a moving Robinson and designed to attack the safeties in a moment of indecision: "is he going to run or throw?"  Both worked for the obvious reason     completed pass, duh     but more importantly, both were designed to get the ball out to play makers in the flats and away from the mass of Spartan defenders in the box.

From that point on I can only remember running that play two more times (however, there might have been one or two more called).  One of them was run right into a blitz off the edge and batted down.  The rest of the 41 pass plays?  Straight drops by Denard Robinson and roll outs by Devin Gardner.  Those plays yielded as many completions for Denard (seven) as sacks allowed and as many points for the offense (six) as points for the defense.

Even more maddening?  On the first drive Michigan ran the ball six times for 47 yards (excluding the scramble and fake FG) on almost eight yards per carry.  That was six running plays in six minutes of game time for almost one third of the gained rushing yards on the day (NCAA stats list Michigan with 151 positive yards to 69 negative).  Michigan would go on to rush the ball twenty times over the rest of the game while passing 39 times into swirling 25 mph winds that made Spartan Stadium look like one of those tornado-in-a-bottle science projects you make when you're in middle school.

Would Michigan have been able to continue to run for 8 yards per carry.  No, Michigan State has a very good run defense and would have held the Wolverines to lower ypc numbers over the course of the game.  However, I vote we change the definition of insanity from "doing the same thing and expecting different results" to "running all vertical passing routes and five to seven step quarterback drops against six or more pass rushers in a howling windstorm."  Specificity, man.

Back to the Well: The Constraint Theory:

Two things were certain going into the game on Saturday:
  1. Michigan State didn't respect Denard Robinson's ability to pass down field.
  2. Therefore, Michigan State would blitz like mad to disrupt down field passes knowing that Robinson wouldn't be able to make the throws in time.
One of the interesting parts in the OSU offensive review a couple weeks back was a quote pulled from a longer piece by Chris Brown of Smart Football on The Constraint Theory*.  If you don't know constraint theory, just know this:  The crux of it is that every football team has something it wants to do, call it A, and every good defense will eventually adjust and cheat to take away A.  Therefore, an offense must have a game plan, B, in place to catch the defense overreacting to A, allowing the offense to go back to A until the defense cheats again.

Anyway, at the end of the block quote is one of the best summations of football I have ever heard, and a pretty good explanation of why I love the game so much, "That’s the beauty of football: punch, counterpunch."

If you watched the game on Saturday you saw the Michigan State defense slowly adjust itself to attack Michigan where it was the most vulnerable.  MSU sent blitzes from every angle, usually not well disguised, and bet that the amount of times Michigan would fail to take advantage of mismatches in the deep and intermediate passing game would cancel out any positive plays.  Weather, Mark "the revolving door" Huyge, and precedent all played into that decision, and it worked brilliantly.

The problem for Michigan was that the counter punch never came.

Take for instance the final play of the first quarter.  Michigan is in a shotgun trips formation with the receivers to the wide side of the field and a tight end on the boundary side.  MSU shows blitz with the SLB moving down so that he is shaded over Molk's right shoulder, then the MLB stacks behind the SLB just before the snap.  This is the area where Vincent Smith is about to go with an inside hand off.  The play gets stuffed.  

Meanwhile the MSU corner is two yards off the wide receiver and the WLB/NB is six yards off the line and over the two slot receivers.  Once the MLB commits to the blitz the next closest player to the flat is the safety eleven yards deep and standing inside the hash.  A quick throw to the slot receiver gets two on two blocking in the flat on the wide side of the field and instead of losing one yard on an inside hand off straight into two blitzing linebackers, Michigan gets at least five with a favorable match up in the flat and possibly more with a missed tackle.  

Michigan State did the same thing to Ohio State, and teams from here on out are going to keep players inside to bottle up the run.  Borges has to spread the defense out so that five blockers aren't taking on six and seven defenders in the box.  Bubble screens are a great way to attack the edges and keep defenses from sticking linebackers in the box and daring Michigan to run without numbers.  This is just one of the constraint plays I was practically begging for on Saturday.

The Spartans were able to stick eight men in the box all day and rush five or more because Borges didn't once call a play to neutralize the pass rush.  No throwback screens, no bubble screens, no shovel passes or draws.

However, the worst part about the offensive game plan wasn't that Borges refused to call any of those B plays to catch the defense out of position; it was that the base plays, the A's that a team relies on, didn't at any point seem coherent and well designed.

This team lacks an offensive identity and obviously doesn't have a solid plan other than, "throw shit against the wall and see what sticks."  Is Michigan a shotgun spread team that runs a lot of zone, or an I-form team that runs power.  Is the passing game based off quick reads and easy short and intermediate routes or attacking the field vertically with seven step quarterback drops.

Up to this point it hasn't really mattered.  Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Minnesota, San Diego State, and Northwestern were the kind of defensive teams that are capable of various levels of resistance, but ultimately can't adjust fast enough when Borges flips to a random page of the playbook and points at something with his eyes closed.

And that is how the play calling felt this game.  There doesn't seem to be any logical progression through the playbook.  The best analogy I can think of is that Borges seemed to be playing checkers when he should have been playing chess.  Instead of just calling plays and trying to pick up yards here and there he needed to call plays with an eye toward the future; figure out ways to manipulate the overeager Spartan defense and find the weaknesses that are presented.  If Michigan State wants to blitz, find a way to set up a screen pass. If Michigan State wants to keep eight men in the box, throw the ball to the flat on a bubble screen.  If the defensive ends are charging off the edges and getting upfield too quickly, hand off on a draw to the halfback.  Chess.

Last week Burgeoning Wolverine Star looked at a nifty little two play progression that led to a touchdown.  Borges called a Maryland-I formation on the first short yardage play and motioned the full back directly over the intended hole before the snap.  Michigan is fortunate to get the first down.  A few plays later the same formation comes out, only this time the fullback motions over the same hole but then pulls across the formation as a receiver on a Devin Gardner bootleg.  Chris at BWS grants Borges some credit for setting this touchdown up with the first play.  I'm not so sure, and neither is Brian at MGo.  This seems to me like a very simple progression that doesn't really set the defense up to be caught off guard as much as it takes advantage of the defense being a bunch of Northwestern players.  Checkers.

My final piece of evidence in the growing case against Al Borges: various I-form plays have come on long down situations this season, and at some point I began jokingly saying to anyone within earshot "here comes the most surprising waggle in history," knowing deep in my heart just what was coming.  Over 75% of the time I was right.

When Michigan lined up in an I-from on fourth and one late in the game I couldn't get to my phone fast enough to text my friend and call it.  We all know how that play worked out.  Checkers.

Now, I don't hate Al Borges, or think I can do his job better than him.  However, these are real concerns as we approach a stretch of games that reads @Illinois, @Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio State.  These teams may not be as good on defense as Michigan State (with the exception of Ohio State, which I think is close), but all four are better than anything Michigan has seen outside of Notre Dame during the six game winning streak that started the season.

Al Borges got exposed on Saturday as a guy who still hasn't settled on what he wants this offense to do.  He has all these odd pieces at his disposal but he has this gnawing urge to line them up in two-tight I-form every once and awhile to see if the finally Get It.  There was no greater plan, no thinking a few moves ahead.  All it is is, "right, left, right, jump, left, king me."  Unless Borges can find a way to better play into this groups skill set while building a coherent offensive progression designed to set defenses up to fail, this offense is going to struggle against defenses that bring a lot of pressure.

He has all the chess pieces, he just has to stop playing checkers with them.

*(I have a general rule that you should follow as well: if Chris Brown writes something, you should always read it.  He is so knowledgeable and well written that I can imagine his grocery lists are encoded with keys to breaking down the Tampa Two defense with four verts.)

Execution Mishaps:

That isn't to say that the fault lies totally with Borges.  He isn't the one on the field blowing blocking assignments and under throwing receivers.  The players have to step up their games in times like these.
  • David Molk didn't have a great day.  He was the victim of a number of blitzes and stunts designed to trip him up and he simply couldn't handle the load.  This same thing happened to OSU center Mike Brewster two weeks ago, which means that either a) these guys had bad games, b) MSU sold the farm quite a few times on blitzes, or c) a little of both.
  • Mark Huyge isn't an offensive tackle.  He may be a guard, but when faced with speed rushers off the edge he simply doesn't have the athleticism and technique to hold up on long developing pass plays.  Despite having a pretty good core group of offensive linemen, this one is on Rich Rodriguez's inability to bring in offensive linemen the last couple years.  It is only going to get worse.
  • Omameh and Schofield both seemed to be pushed around by Michigan State's interior line and stymied by inside blitzes from the linebackers.
  • I can't fault the receivers much in this one because they were either dealing with good coverage or badly thrown passes.  I would have liked to see Gallon get a few shots to make people miss in the flats on bubble screens.
  • Denard.  First, let me preface this by saying I don't think he needs to be benched.  You don't take your biggest offensive weapon off the field, you give him ways to succeed and reap the benefits.  Although in this one his production was sorely lacking.  Now, disclaimers abound: the wind was an obvious factor on a number of throws and Michigan State spent most of the afternoon drinking his milkshake right up.  However, there were a few downright awful passes and a few potential scrambles that became sacks because of Robinson's indecision.  If he doesn't adjust to this kind of pressure the rest of the season is going to go about the same because you know teams are going to bring the heat from here on out.
  • Other dings:  Vincent Smith's failed hot route on the pick-six, Grady's drop, and Lewan's face mask pin (you're better than that, son.).

This game needs to be a wake up call for everyone involved.  The offensive coaches need to readjust the way they prepare this team as well as build a cohesive offensive identity.  Brady Hoke needs to go for it on fourth down in the opponents territory.  Denard Robinson needs to settle himself in the pocket, set his body to throw, and take off when he feels pressure.

This offense isn't hopeless, but only if Al Borges starts using the pieces he has in the proper way.

Besides, chess is a better game, yo.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

I usually watch Michigan games alone.  It has been that way since I graduated college and left the communal atmosphere that makes one feel a part of the school and the games.  Being an alumni just isn't the same.  The love is there, but the camaraderie is missing.

Of course, the last few years didn't help that much.  I spent 2007 as a holdout in one final semester, most of my friends graduated and moving on with their lives, me clinging to my student tickets and the only thing that ever made sense to me: going to school.  The next two years I lived in East Lansing with a house full of MSU fans, who, while generally rational, enjoyed watching my in-game nervous twitching, tantrums, and manic depressive behavior too much for my comfort.  I spent many Saturdays in my room alone.  Last year was my first away from the Midwest, and living with a friend who couldn't have cared less about college football in any form, it was easy to find solitude in which to watch games.

In any case, the last four years of Michigan football, combined with my already nervous disposition, have driven me away from football as a communal experience.  I've become a college football hermit.


This year things are a little different.  I have more friends in the area, one of them a good college friend and one of only two people outside of my father who I go to to talk Michigan football.

I also don't have the Big Ten Network at home.  This has driven me find places outside the comfort of my house to watch games     something I'm not entirely comfortable with.  It has also driven me to sports bars more often than I would have liked.  Most games so far this year this  have been fine.  I watched the EMU game in an empty bar in Mio Michigan, I watched the SDSU game early in the afternoon in a half empty Buffalo Wild Wings that was just quiet enough for me to worry out loud and crack jokes to the others at my table, and I watched the Minnesota game at a friend's apartment as he got ready to watch the MSU game at 3:30.  All three cases were low stress.  Games were never in doubt, and I never had cause to flip out*.

Saturday night for the Northwestern game a few of us decided to go back to BWW.  I got there early and found a table right under a screen already tuned to the Big Ten network.  The Virginia Tech game was in the final minute (living in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, this is overwhelmingly the favorite team despite the a heavy military presence) and the whole place had a great college football buzz, different cheers erupting from corners of the bar, everyone closely following a game, and occasionally the majority of the place hooting and hollering at the game in Blacksburg.

Then the Tech game ended and the crowd started to thin out just as my blood pressure was rising.  The beginning of the Michigan game quickly went from ideal to, well, less than ideal.  You already know that part.

As the second quarter started the mood in the bar changed.  It was a UFC fight night, and slowly the place started to fill up with people waiting for the fight.  Pretty soon our TV got changed one of the under card fights and we had to track down the nearest manager to get BTN back, but not without hearing that no matter what, at nine o'clock the big screens were all going to be turned to the fight, and we would have to make due with a smaller TV tucked away  in a corner somewhere.  Over the noise of the patrons was the juke box playing just about everything I don't want to hear during a Michigan game with the exception of In The Big House     thank god for small miracles.

I don't know what your thoughts, dear reader, are on MMA fighting.  Whether you fancy it the sport of gentlemanly combat between well-trained chiseled Adonises, or a brutal Romanesque spectacle that excites only the basest instincts of meat heads and forearm tattoo enthusiasts** is immaterial.  What is most egregious in this writer's mind is the fact that on a football Saturday, with a handful of great college games available, the sports bar's main interest was showing an MMA fight.  Don't even get me started on the fact that the ALCS was shown on one TV, tucked away almost directly behind a large pillar***.

The crowd and the noise and the infuriating string of interceptions was too much, and by the time Pat Fitzgerald was lobbying for two seconds to be put back on the clock     all the while I couldn't tell what the hell was happening     I made up my mind.  The prospect of watching the second half of Michigan's return-to-earth game in a packed bar cheering for blood was too much.  I called a friend that I knew had BTN, asked if we could head over, and by the midpoint of halftime we had paid our bills and left.

*(Contrast this to the Notre Dame game, which I watched alone in my room in a depressed funk, then state of charged ecstasy.)

**(Seriously, I'm usually not one to stereotype, but by the fourth person who walked past in an Affliction t-shirt with some ridiculous forearm tattoo, I knew something was up and the congenial college football atmosphere had taken a turn for the worst.)

***(Like watching a game at old Tiger Stadium.  Am I right, folks?  Am I right?  I'll be here all night.)


I guess where I am going with all of this has less to do with the external environment of watching football than the things going on in my head (although to be fair, I am never going to watch a Michigan game in BWW again as a matter of principle.  Your boneless wings may be tasty and your large glasses of beer cheap, but you insistence on deifying MMA fighting is an outrage, but I digress).

I guess I have been spoiled as a fan.  I have for the most part stayed away from sports bars, avoided hostile fan bases (never once going to see Michigan play an away game other that the '07 Rose Bowl, which don't get me started on that), and been able to crawl inside a cocoon of self loathing and defeatist cries at every wrong turn.

Are other people miserable to watch Michigan football around, or is it me?  I'm afraid to answer that.
This game was no different.  I like to joke that the repeated blows of the last few years have hardened me to the failures of my alma mater, that I have become numb to incompetence and defeat.  This is a lie I tell myself so I feel better during all those hours I'm not actively freaking out about Michigan football.  I'm not numb to defeat, I find defeat in everything and constantly expect the worst.

This game was no different.  I spent the entire first half miserable about the failure of Denard Robinson to throw to his receivers, the failure of the defense to stop the Northwestern speed option, and the failure of Al Borges to stop calling The Most Surprising Waggle In History.

I wonder if this is it.  If I have been broken.  Have I wound myself too tightly in the success and failure of this team?  Do I not give the coaching staff enough credit when it comes to subtle in game adjustments and fixing player mistakes during the game?  Will every October bring a feeling of impending doom, as if it is only a matter of time before the other shoe falls and I end up pouring over recruiting rankings and repeating, "next year, next year" to myself like a crazy person?

I don't know the answer, but I certainly hope not.  This game is too much fun to take too seriously, and the players on the field work too hard to judge on the basis of wins and losses.  I would still think the world of Denard Robinson if he threw three more interceptions in the second half.  It would still be an honor to have Jordan Kovacs on the team even if he kept missing tackles on the option that led to touchdowns.


I know the cosmos doesn't care how I watch football and whatever higher power is up there has more important things to worry about than some neurotic 26 year old fan getting too worked up over things he can't control.  But it still feels like this season so far has been about healing the fan base.  Slow first halves give way to strong finishes.  Early mistakes are corrected during the game.  The impending October collapse is shaken off as Denard Robinson settles himself in the pocket and leads the team to four touchdowns on five drives in the second half.

I have no illusions of this team going undefeated.  It could very well lose next week to Michigan State.  But I am starting to get more comfortable with the idea that sometimes a loss is just a loss, and not a sign that the universe is unraveling at the seams.

But don't ask me my thoughts on that next Saturday.

Baby steps.


Now, what you are really here for: actual football talk.


  • I don't know if I have ever seen an athlete capable of a greater range of play than Denard Robinson.  Between everything that happened last year, and the two comebacks this year, we have seen Denard at his absolute best, absolute worst, and everything in between.  This time we must make no excuses. Denard was just flat out bad in the first half Saturday.  Some interceptions are great plays (look at the INT Nebraska had against OSU late in their game), some interceptions are lucky bounces (Brandin Hawthorne nods knowingly), and some are just putrid throws that are completely inexcusable.
  • That being said, Denard was pretty friggin' awesome in the second half.  He looked like a new quarterback.  He was patient in the pocket and on target with his throws.  If we get that Denard the rest of the season we win every game.  We won't get that Denard the entire rest of the season.  It has become a matter of how long he shows up.  Some games we don't need him (EMU, SDSU), some games we only need him for a quarter (ND, WMU), and some games more like a half (NU).  You can bet we will need three quarters of Good Denard if we want to beat Michigan State this weekend and Nebraska/Illinois/OSU in the future.
  • The running backs were quiet, but one thing I really enjoyed was seeing Michael Shaw get a chance to play.  It grew increasingly obvious that the only way we would pick up yards on NU was to get the ball outside the tackles     a Mike Shaw specialty.  I still like the Fitz/Vince one two punch, but it is nice to know we can go to the well and change up the strategy if need be.  Shaw only finished with 25 yards, but he did it on just six carries (4.2 ypc) and got a touchdown out of it.
  • Junior Hemingway was back in a big way, and goddamn can that man high-point a ball.  Any other receiver and I would call that first jump ball a product of luck (I'm looking at you Roy Roundtree, and also the CB that didn't turn around to see the ball almost hit him in the helmet), but with Junior the jump ball is more of an art.  In basketball some guys just know how to rebound; they understand innately how to get position under the basket, what angle to expect the ball to carom off the rim at, and when to jump.  Junior is exceptionally good at doing this on the football field.  I bet he is one helluva IM basketball player.
  • I would like to kindly ask Al Borges to stop running The Most Surprising Waggle In History, but I'll be damned if the thing didn't work a couple times.  Sure, Denard's first throw was inches away from being of the hair-pulling variety, but the offense converted a couple times.  Still, it is pretty bad when I can announce every I-form tight play as The Most Surprising Waggle In History to the room and be right 90% of the time.  Who wants to bet Michigan State isn't fooled.
  • Taylor Lewan, you got lucky on this one.  Savor it, because it isn't happening again.
  • I hoped the offense would do a bit better than 3.6 ypc against Northwestern, but I will chalk that up to the Wildcats being a stout run defense team, and not our offense being ineffective running the ball with anyone but Denard in games against anyone but Minnesota.  We will know for sure next week.  Michigan State has a pretty damn good front seven.
  • Speaking of pretty damn good front sevens, I liked the way the defensive line and linebackers got after Persa and the Northwestern running game.  It is important to keep in mind the injuries to Mike Trumpy and Dan Persa (who wasn't 100%), but I thought NU did a great job integrating Kain Colter into the game plan, and the defensive line did a great job disrupting things once it got its footing.
  • Other than the speed option.  This is troubling, especially because the two toughest opponents left after Michigan State are all teams that can and will spread the field and look to exploit defensive breakdowns with quick option plays.  Persa picking apart the defense through the air was one thing, but the fact that the speed option picked up yards nearly every time*.  Also, the tackling on the speed option looked 2010-esque.  Even Kovacs whiffed on one tackle, leading to a touchdown.  By far the worst aspect of the defense all day.  This same rant could be used to bemoan being bubble screened to death, but Mattison did a good job covering the slot in the second half and slowing that down.
  • Other than that missed tackle, Kovacs had another good day, and Thomas Gordon was good as well, especially on his strip and fumble recovery.  Two good safeties?  Something about that just doesn't seem fair.  I didn't know teams could do that.
  • Blake Countess.  Yeah, I know he got beat by a step on the long pass in the second quarter, but other than that he looks very solid out there.  I am excited to see how this develops.
  • Big Will Campbell also had a nice sack late.  I haven't watched the entire game replay yet to try and pinpoint his contribution (trying to play the 5GB torrent I downloaded was pretty much akin to pouring molasses on my two-year-old laptop) but rumblings from around the blogosphere are positive.  (Insert burned red shirt rant)
  • It was nice to see the defense as a whole step up so much in the second half after allowing 24 points and looking almost completely helpless in the first half.
  • One last note: 14/17 on third down.  I was shocked when I read that stat on Sunday.  It really puts Denard's interceptions into perspective.  If he wasn't stopping the offense, nothing else was on Saturday.  One of the best third down percentages I can remember against a team with a pulse.
*(The one time it didn't: fourth and one.  However, this was a speed option run to the short side of the field with a visibly slowed Dan Persa instead of Kain Colter.  The Michigan defense blew the play up, but the play call did not put NU in a position to succeed.)


Last week I said we couldn't learn anything at all from the Minnesota game.  This week I'm still not sure what we can take away specifically about the offense or defense.

However, the one thing I did learn is that it will be hard to count this team out with all the play makers on it.  Now that there is a coaching staff that's adjustments are more than switching stuffed animals at halftime, this team can finally start growing into something better week by week.

I'll probably still be a nervous wreck, though.

Monday, October 3, 2011

And Nobody Learned Anything At All That Day

(I'm back*.)

My junior year of college my younger sister decided to visit me for a football game.  She was a senior in high school and was just starting to get her mind around the big transition that was looming as she prepared to go off to college in the fall     a transition that she had witnessed me making from afar.  While we were always close when we were younger, we had drifted apart in the years since I had left home, and our time spent together became limited to those few weekends I went home because of other plans but just happened to be around the house Saturday afternoon for a little while.

The game we settled on for her visit was Minnesota     partly because tickets would be easy to come by and partly because it looked like a win in a season that wasn't exactly following my best case scenario.  That Friday night before the game we went to a party at a my friends' house, and I, as I was wont to do in those days, partied a little too hard.  She was still in her straight-laced days of no booze and dragged my ass home after I had drank all the booze.  She wasn't impressed.

The next day we woke up and I started in on the normal Saturday routine.  I made breakfast with College Gameday playing in the background, started drinking beer and getting nervous about the game, then took her to hit up a couple tailgates with friends.

The game, as you can most likely remember, couldn't have gone much worse.  After starting MSU's Annual October Descent into Madness the week before, Minnesota just wouldn't die.  After jumping out to an early lead Minnesota clawed back and tied the score at 20 going into the fourth.  By the time this happened:

...my day was pretty much ruined.

As we trudged back to my house down Hoover street among the throngs of silent and discontent fans, I don't think I said much of anything outside of muttering a few of the standard Late-Era Lloyd Carr complaints under my breath.

The most vivid memory I have of that day is laying down in my bed, feeling sick to my stomach from the gut punch that followed a morning of greasy food and beer.

We didn't do anything that night.  Just stayed in and watched football on TV, me and my sister in that old house on White street.  Just like when we were kids.


That is the only Minnesota game of my life that I really remember outside of 2008.  I listened to the 2003 comeback in the Metrodome from a car radio on my way home from watching my old high school team get their asses handed to them by the best team in our conference.  What other year was Minnesota even relevant?  Had they not taken the Jug on that fall day in 2005, it would still be in the same spot it had been since 1986: right where it belonged, in Schembechler Hall.

In a way I'm almost glad that the game happened.  Not because I like losing to Minnesota en route to 7-5 in what was to that point the MOST DISAPPOINTING SEASON OF MY LIFE (hah, if I only knew...).  Character building experiences are for chumps.  No, that game reminded me just how much it meant to beat Minnesota, and keep the Brown Jug.  People can write that the Brown Jug is meaningless now, but I know better.  Just because Minnesota has been bad for a long time, just because the one year the Gophers were favored turned into an epic choke job at the hands of Nick Sheridan doesn't change that pain in my stomach October 8th.  I didn't want to give up the Jug.  It was a matter of pride.

That game helped me realize that.  It also brought me closer to my sister.  That next summer we took a road trip camping in upstate New York.  Six days of intense one on one time before she went off to college at Pittsburgh that fall.  We may not talk a lot these days, but those are the kind of memories that hold us together.

Two weeks ago she got married, and it was my honor to preside over the service**.

I may not keep in touch with my sister much these days, but deep down she means the world to me, even if I take it for granted that she will always be there when I want her to.


As for Saturday's game, I don't know what to say that hasn't already been said in regard to every natural disaster in the past ten years.  What Minnesota did on Saturday in no way resembled Big Ten football, and by the time it ended I had lost all interest.  You can only rubberneck at a car accident for so long before reality sets in.

This game was in all honesty little more than a scrimmage.  Bullets anyway:

  • Even though it wasn't a very competitive game, it is nice to see Denard gain a little confidence in the passing game.  Those passes don't complete themselves, even if there is no discernible defense in the way.  I will take 11 straight completions any day of the week, and that pass to Hopkins (HOPKINS!) was as pretty a throw as I've seen from Denard all year.  More of this please.
  • Denard running against Minnesota's defense reminds me of being a kid when that one athletic kid a couple years older than everyone comes in and just quietly dominates all game before walking off and leaving everyone slack-jawed asking what the hell just happened.  Some of the cuts he made and creases he hit looked too easy.
  • Fitz Toussaint is quietly becoming one of my favorite players on the offense.  While the competition hasn't been there, he seems to be gaining confidence and making the subtle kinds of moves that most running backs aren't able to pull off.  Not to mention the fact that he never stopped running as hard as he could until he was pulled all the way down to the ground.  A couple times I thought he was going to run right out of his jersey as some Minnesota player clung to it for dear life.  I hope this bodes well for the future.
  • I'm not sure what to think of the diamond formation Borges pulled out.  Are you trying to get in Northwestern's head?  Is this something we might see a lot of?  The possibilities are endless, and I guess I'd take this over I-form, but let's no go nuts, ok?
  • Helmet Numbers:  I'm a fan.  I like that the team liked the idea, and it is the kind of subtle change to the uni's that I can support.  I also second Brian's idea:  if they lose, the numbers are gone.
  • Hemingway had a couple catches, and it was nice to see him after he had been quiet the last couple weeks.
  • Vincent Smith as the second halfback option is seeming better and better all the time.  He isn't going to be a 100 ypg back, but he does enough of the little things that he is valuable to have on the field 20+ times a game.  Just no more passes please?  That was an arm punt if I've ever seen one.
  • I don't have too much to say about the defense other than: bravo.  I don't care who you play, if you shut them down that thoroughly you are doing a good job.  Unfortunately this doesn't really mean anything for the future I fear.  I am excited to see how our D does against Northwestern and MSU     both good teams with talented skill position players but weaknesses that are ripe to be exploited.
  • I didn't realize the first time through that Countess was the one who forced that fumble in the flat.  Excitement level growing...
  • Koger's stiff arm: damn.
  • Devin Gardner played well in his limited time.  Bodes well for the future that he looks comfortable in the offense and athletic enough to make plays out of nothing.
  • Still not sure what to think about Thomas Rawls.  I'd like to jump on the hype train, but I just don't see him being anything more than a poor man's Brandon Minor.  Will I take 80% of a healthy Brandon Minor over the real thing that only plays half the time?  Oh yeah.Christmas came early for 
  • Courtney Avery.  That is the easiest defensive touchdown of your life kid.


What does any of this mean for next week?  Nothing.  It was painfully obvious once both teams got a few snaps that it was only a matter of "how badly will Michigan beat Minnesota".

Thankfully it looks like Northwestern may be vulnerable.
  1. Dan Persa:  Persa was back last week, and while he threw four touchdown passes, he only passed for 120 yards on just 14 attempts.  Only two of the scoring drives were long (80 and 69 yards) while Northwestern has six drives go for less than ten yards and five go between 30 and 40.  If Michigan can take care of the ball and stay solid on special teams it could be hard for Northwestern to move the ball 60+ yards to score.  I want to see Michigan lay the hammer down on defense if only so I have a little more confidence going into the MSU game.
  2. What Rush Defense Shows Up?  Northwestern held Boston College to 102 yards in the first game in what looked like a sea change for the beleagured Wildcat front seven after a poor 2010 playing the run.  Then BC went out and lost to the world, Northwestern gave up 381 yards on the ground to Army, and Illinois couldn't get much more than two yards per carry and...well, I don't know.  Eastern Illinois is a terrible rushing team in FCS and it gained 5.0 ypc against NU.  What the hell Pat, make up your mind.  If Northwestern shuts down Michigan like it did Illinois, Michigan won't have much chance in this one.  I don't see that happening.  Northwestern got a bye week before the Illinois game and I have a feeling Fitzgerald spent the whole time teaching his team how to shut down Illinois on the ground.  Should have spent some time on pass defense.
  3. Nathan Scheelhaase, pocket passer?  It certainly looks that way from the stat sheet: 21/32, 391 yds, 3/1 td/int, with only 35 yards rushing on less than two yards per carry.  Scheelhaase has thrown the ball better this year     almost 70% comp     but he still isn't the kind of guy you peg for 391 yards against a good pass defense.  Which means this may not be a good pass defense.  Eighty-eighth in pass eff. defense and 81st in pass yardage defense don't paint a rosy picture.  Especially when one of the teams you played was Army.
Of course this is the first away game, and it is a night game, so that is an advantage for Northwestern.  Although if half the stadium isn't wearing maize and blue then the Chicago alumni have failed miserably.


If you want to read me elsewhere I just posted my weekly Big Ten Power Rankings on Bleacher Report.  You know how you beat the man when he tells you to do a slideshow?  Make the damn thing 5000 words long.  I also wrote two reaction pieces in the wake of the OSU vs. MSU game.  They focus heavily on just how awful Ohio State is.  Read them for nothing else than the juicy schadenfreude in the comment section.

Ah, Buckeye fans, your tears sustain men.

Until next time (whenever that is).

Go Blue.

*(After announcing the return of the blog I quickly wrote one post.....then went AWOL for like three weeks.  I'm sorry.  In my defense:  1. I had to drive home to Michigan for my little sister's wedding up north without TV or internet that forced me to watch the EMU game on a grainy, 20-year-old projection tv in a bar owned by quite possibly the oldest people in the world.  2. The life of a part time employee is fraught with terrible hours.  Between my other job and writing for Bleacher Report, I just haven't had time to write much on Michigan football.  3. The last three games haven't been all that interesting.  I promise more regular content from here on out.  You don't believe me, and probably for good reason.)

**(I was ordained in some church online that I cannot to this day give you the name of.  They send me emails that I mark as spam.  I am not available to do your wedding unless you pay handsomely and don't care about how the service turns out.  Or if you don't care that I do it half drunk     I've got bad nerves and all.)