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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – Sugar Bowl

January 8, 2012

 

THE GOOD

  • Cherry on Top – As I wrote earlier this week, no matter what happened on Tuesday night, this season was an unexpected gift that helped reminded us all what Michigan football was all about.  A 10 win season, victories over Notre Dame and OSU, and a spot on the national stage are what Michigan football should always be known for.  But let’s be honest, a loss on Tuesday would’ve left a bit of a sour taste in our mouths.  10-3 and a loss in the Sugar Bowl isn’t bad, but 11-2, a Sugar Bowl Trophy, and a Top 10 finish feels much better.  And while it wasn’t pretty, it still counts.  This Michigan team will be remembered for a long time as one of my favorites, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.   There’s been plenty of bad mouthing of Michigan in the last 24 hours – talking about their ugly win, that they didn’t deserve to be there, and that they aren’t worthy of a Top 10 ranking.  Just remember, people love to hate Michigan.  When they stopped talking about us, that’s when its time to worry.  Now that were back among the elite and the subject of talk shows across the country, we can finally say that Michigan is back.
  • Finding a Way to Win – There is no question this wasn’t one of Michigan’s best performances of the year.  On a better night, they probably beat Virginia Tech by 2-3 TDs.  I’m sure that Va Tech fans feel the same way about the way they played.  But Michigan did what they had to do to win.  If I had told you a year ago that we would win the Sugar Bowl with defense and special teams, you would’ve thought I sounded more ridiculous than every time Rick Perry opens his mouth.  Yet that’s exactly what we did on Tuesday.  Good teams find a way to win even when their bread and butter isn’t working.  In our case, the offense was a mess, but the defense and special teams made enough plays to pull off the win.  That’s something we couldn’t have fathomed last year.  If the offense wasn’t clicking, we weren’t going to win.  But if you’re solid in all 3 phases of the game, you’ll rarely get blown out, and you’ll find a way to steal a game or two here or there.  Sure Team 132 had heart, and they didnt’ give up, but what really matters is that they played very well in 2 of 3 phases during the game, and that’s what allowed them to win.
  • Red Zone Defense – If you take a look back at the recaps from earlier this season, you’ll notice a trend involving Red Zone Defense.   In games that we won handily, the Red Zone Defense was excellent.  In games we lost or struggled in, it was below average.  On Tuesday, the single biggest reason we were able to win was because of our Red Zone defense.   Virginia Tech made it to the Michigan Red Zone 7 times, and came away with just 1 touchdown and 4 field goals.  That’s 20 points on a potential 49 points.  Not only did we hold them to field goals for the first 3 quarters of the game, we also forced one possession of no points with a 4th down stop.  The defense was by no means perfect on Tuesday, with plenty of head scratching 3rd down conversions for the Hokies.  But when they needed to get off the field, most of the time they did.
  • Players with Two First Names – Speaking of the defense, while seniors Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen certainly led the charge, it was great to see the defense of the future lead the way with several big plays.  In particular, mancrush Jake Ryan and freshman Frank Clark both came up big when we needed to.  Jake Ryan had 4 tackles for a loss on his way to 7 tackles for the game, and his 22 yard tackle for a loss on 1st and Goal from the Michigan 4 yard line would have been the play of the game if it weren’t for Frank Clark.  Clark’s leaping interception of Logan Thomas’ screen pass in the 3rd quarter put Michigan in position to build a 17-6 lead.  It was an incredibly athletic play, and an unexpected contribution.  Ryan looked like the future All-American I’ve been praising all season, but Clark made it clear he’s going to compete for stud status next year as well.
  • Hemingway’s Night – Junior Hemingway may be one of the most underrated wide receivers in Michigan history.  His stats aren’t that gaudy, but he may be one of the most clutch receivers Michigan has had.  Last year his late game heroics against Indiana and Illinois help Michigan pull of narrow victories.  And although he didn’t end up with the winning grab in this year’s Notre Dame game, his big plays early in the game helped setup that wild finish.  Tuesday, Junior was the only person on offense who seemed to be in a groove.  His first touchdown catch was a product of a lucky throw, some bad defense and a good catch.  His second touchdown was a stellar catch in the back of the end zone that gave Michigan an 11 point lead.  In a game where points were at a premium, Junior accounted for two huge touchdowns and earned a well deserved Sugar Bowl MVP.  And as icing on the cake, he gave one of the best postgame acceptance speeches I’ve ever heard that brought him to tears.  Even ESPN’s Chris Fowler who interviewed him was moved enough to tweet “Never had a more interesting/emotional post game interview subject Than Jr Hemingway tonight. Genuine tears. Powerful meaning behind that W.  Junior summed up the Michigan experience over the last 4 years perfectly.
  • Iron Man Seniors – Before Tuesday, we knew that unquestioned leaders of this team were center David Molk, and defensive lineman Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen.  These three were already going down in Michigan history as some of my favorites due to their tenacious play and leadership.  But on Tuesday they all took a leap up that list thanks to the toughness the three of them showed.  After re-injuring his surgically repaired foot in warm ups, Molk sat on the sideline on the first series and saw the Michigan offense struggle greatly.  By the next series he as on the field.  Maybe he wasn’t at 100%, and maybe he wasn’t that effective.  But his leadership and presence were enough to get Michigan the win.  Similarly, Ryan Van Bergen had undisclosed leg injury (perhaps broken) that he played on throughout the game.  He was constantly in Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Jones face, and finished with 4 tackles and half a sack. For those who saw Molk and Van Bergen limping on crutches and unable to put much weight on their legs after the game, its clear what they went through to help the team.  While Mike Martin thankfully wasn’t injured, he played significantly more than usual due to injuries on the defensive line.  He was a warrior all game and finished with 10 tackles.  These 3 guys epitomized this Michigan team and this win.  Maybe it wasn’t the prettiest, but when the chips were down they did what they had to do.  They will be severely missed next year. 
  • Brunette Girls and Mustached Kickers – Prior to Tuesday night, most people still viewed Brendan Gibbons as kicker who went 1/5 to start last season and lost his job in the middle of year.  Even though he was 13/17 this year, nobody really trusted him with the game on the line.  Except for maybe Brady Hoke.  Gibbons three field goals, including his picture perfect game winner, probably should’ve been expected based on his season long performance, but I know we were all terrified when he lined up for that final kick.  Fortunately for us, Gibbons had his secret weapon that was revealed in the post game press conference.  While we were all sweating it out prior to the kick, he was thinking of brunette girls.  Brendan not only went from unreliable to clutch in one night, but he probably solidified the fact that he’ll never have to buy a drink anywhere in Ann Arbor ever again.  It’s amazing the difference a year can make.

THE BAD

  • Al Borges – Whether or not Al Borges is to blame for the offensive woes on Tuesday is up for debate.  Several people have argued that the real culprit was the execution of the offense.  While that certainly plays a role, this performance was eerily similar to MSU and Iowa, where the defense dictated the action, and Borges couldn’t figure out an adequate counterpunch.  184 yards is downright ugly, and if it wasn’t for the fact that Michigan managed to put up enough points to win, this would be the entire story of the game.  Bud Foster, Va Tech’s defensive coordinator is one of the best in the business, and he had his team ready to play after their embarrassing lost to Clemson in the ACC Title game.  But I expected more from Borges, especially after the stellar games he called against Nebraska and OSU.   There is no easy way to say this, but Bud Foster ate Borges’ lunch on Tuesday, plain and simple. 
  • No Running Game? – The biggest reason for the offensive struggles was Michigan’s inability to run the ball.  Michigan had 56 yards on 30 carries –  less than 2 yards per carry.  Denard was basically held in check completely, picking up only 13 yards on 13 carries (no math necessary here), while Fitzgerald Toussaint had 14 yards on his first rush from scrimmage and then only 16 yards in his next 12 carries.  Part of the problem was the offensive line, but part of it was the playcalling too.  Fitz never found a rhythm as he didn’t get nearly enough carries early on in my opinion.  He wasn’t overly successful, but good backs chip away and get better, which he is capable of.  David Wilson, the Va Tech running back had 50+ yards in the 2nd half after a lackluster first half.  Michigan, and in particular Borges’ refusal to use Toussaint helped Va Tech keep our running game in check.  It’s no secret that our best games this year were when we were committed to the run – something we didn’t do at all on Tuesday. 
  • 3rd and Long – As I mentioned above, the defense was very good on Tuesday, holding Virginia Tech to 20 points and 377 total yards.  If they could’ve figured out how to defend third down, both of those numbers would have been significantly lower.  Overall the Hokies only converted 6 of 15 3rd down conversions.  But it felt like much more than that because they seemed to convert every 3rd and long situation.  They converted 3rd downs of 20, 13, 8, 8, 12, and they also threw in a 4th and 11 for good measure.  5 of their 6 3rd down conversions were for 8 or more yards – a maddening stat.  Michigan won 2 of every 3 plays every series to put the Hokies in those long down and distance situations, but couldn’t figure out a way to get off the field.  With the exception of the drive where Michigan got a 4th down stop in the red zone, every Virginia Tech drive that involved a long 3rd down conversation resulted in points.  For as bad as Michigan played in some phases, had they been a little better on those 6 plays, this might have been a blowout win. 

THE UGLY

  • The Game – Let’s not beat round the bush here – this was an UGLY football game.  If you didn’t have a dog in the fight, you probably would’ve turned it off somewhere after the comedy of errors towards the end of the 2nd quarter that led to a 10-6 Michigan lead after being dominated the entire first half.  To recap, the game involved one botched fake punt, one botched fake field goal (that was actually converted), 3 turnovers, 1 missed field goal, 7 made field goals, 3 touchdowns, 1 4th down stop, 40 points in regulation, and the team that won only had 184 yards of total offense.   And to top it off, the MVP of the game had a whopping 2 catches.  As a Michigan fan, I was thrilled to see Michigan win, but something tells me I won’t be staying up late to watch the replay of this game in 5 years. 
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