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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – Season Review

December 31, 2012

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THE GOOD

  • 8 Wins and New Year’s Day – There is no question that 8 wins and a New Year’s Day bowl game should be the floor for Michigan football.  And after last years 11 wins and BCS Bowl game win, I think many feel like this year was a step backwards.  In some ways, it was.  Despite the fact that Michigan didn’t accomplish many of its goals, they continued to move the program back to stability and success, something needed in Ann Arbor.   The best way to look at it is this – if I told you at the beginning of the season we’d basically play the last 4.5 games without Denard Robinson at QB, and instead start a player who spent the last 9 months playing wide receiver at QB, it would be tough to complain about the final results.   Especially when you realize that 3 of  Michigan’s 4 losses were to teams that finished the season ranked 1 through 3 in the AP poll.  Beyond that, Michigan is now 14-0 at home during the Brady Hoke era, and despite the 1-2 record against its rivals this year, is 3-3 in the Big 3 Rivalries.  In short, though this team didn’t achieve all its goals, this 8-4 finish is drastically different than the 7-5 mark from the 2010 team.
  • Improved Defense – Despite a more difficult schedule, including defending national champion Alabama, the Michigan defense managed to put forth an even better performance in 2012 than they did during their magical 2011 turnaround.  Statistically, Michigan moved from 17th to 10th overall in Total Defense, despite just giving up 6 yards less per game.  Michigan gave up about 1.5 more points per game in 2012, dropping from 7th in Scoring Defense to 16th, but that includes the shellacking Alabama gave us. Finally, though Michigan gave up about 30 yards per game more on the ground this year, it was countered by the #2 pass defense in the country.  And they did all this after losing Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen, and starting corner Blake Countess.  For those wondering if Greg Mattison caught lightning in a bottle last year…he didn’t.  What should be terrifying for the rest of the Big Ten is that he’s been doing this with guys recruited for a different system.  Though we lose some depth off of the defensive line (Will Campbell, Craig Roh) and defensive secondary anchor Jordan Kovacs, something tells me we won’t skip a beat. I’m not sure how you improve on back to back Top 17 defenses – but I’m betting Mattison finds a way.
  • QB Dilemma Solved – Heading into the season, it seemed that Devin Gardner’s switch to wide receiver, though not permanent in Devin’s mind, was a part of the long term plan by the coaches.  The idea would be that either super frosh Shane Morris would take the reigns next year, or spend a year backing up Russell Bellomy.  Then the Nebraska game came and things got dicey when it was clear that Bellomy wasn’t the answer, at least not now.  But when Gardner moved back to QB, a funny thing happened – we were all reminded about how a year ago, there was talk/speculation that the best Michigan offense didn’t have Denard Robinson at QB.  Despite a lackluster performance in Columbus, Devin Gardner proved that he is clearly the quarterback of the near future for Michigan, and probably for an NFL team too.  Though Gardner may not be as electrifying as a player as Denard is, he showed poise, presence, and football knowledge that in all honesty we’ve been lacking from Denard.  That’s not a knock on Denard, it just not his strength.
  • Young Stars –  One reason for optimism is the emergence of several young stars, especially on defense.  Last year some of you might have snickered at my Jake Ryan man crush. I think its fair to say that I’m not the only one anymore.  54 solo tackles, 15 for a loss, 4.5 sacks, and 5 forced fumbles is a heck of a sophomore campaign.  For what its worth, here’s the stat line for Heisman finalist Manti T’eo of Notre Dame – 52 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, 0 forced fumbles, though he did have 7 interceptions.  Obviously there is more to playing the game than stats, but its hard to argue there was a more productive linebacker than Jake Ryan.  Outside of Ryan, the continued development of Frank Clark and the flashes shown by linebackers James Ross and Joe Bolden bode well for the Michigan defense of the future.  On offense, Devin Funchess, though less effective later in the season, appears to be the type of playmaker Michigan needs.  With so much attrition and young players thrown into the fire early the last 4 years, its nice to see a pipeline of young talent developing in a way that creates excitement for the future.

THE BAD

  • No Rings – Brady Hoke has set the bar for Michigan Football and the only way to clear that bar is to win Big Ten Championships.  So in that regard, this season was a failure.  While I find more nuance in grading success vs. failure, there is no question that this team’s inability to win the division, let alone the Big Ten Title, is a disappointment.  Despite last year’s identical 6-2 record, Michigan was actually in a much better place this year to win the division, if not the conference, which is probably what makes this even more frustrating.  Had we beaten Nebraska in Lincoln, we would’ve won the Legends Division, regardless of what happened in Columbus.  Last year’s season was salvaged by a BCS bowl win.  This year, though a win over a good South Carolina team in the Outback Bowl would be a nice way to end the season, the only New Year’s Day Bowl game that counts is played in California and involves Roses.  
  • Wasted Denard – One reason this failure of this team to win the Big Ten is so frustrating is that one of the best ambassadors for the program in Michigan history, Denard Robinson, will leave Ann Arbor without a championship ring.  For four years Denard has been everything you’d want in a student athlete.  More importantly, when nobody cared about Michigan football coming off of 3-9 and 5-7 seasons, he gave people a reason to care.  He kept Michigan on SportsCenter with his Playstation stats and Heisman contention.   I learned long ago that sometimes sports don’t end in storybook endings.  If they did, Chad Henne’s arm would’ve magically healed so Michigan could’ve beaten OSU in 2007 for the Big Ten title.  But after the loss in Lincoln, part of me always expected that Nebraska would lose again and Denard would lead us to a victory in Columbus for a Big Ten title.  None of that came true, and it sucks to think that a once in a generation player like Denard will leave Ann Arbor without a Big Ten Title ring.
  • No Running Back of the Future – After Fitzgerald Toussaint’s breakout sophomore year where he was the first Michigan running back to hit 1,000 yards since Mike Hart, we all assumed we had our next great Michigan running back for 2 more years.  For some reason, whether it was the offensive line, or just a change in scheme, Fitz never could find his 2011 form this year.  He was so inconsistent that he was actually benched halfway through the year while the coaching staff tried out a couple of other backs, who unfortunately couldn’t break out.  Toussaint finally hit a groove in the 8th game and looked like his old self.  Unfortunately, that success was short lived as 3 games later a gruesome leg injury raised questions about whether Fitz will ever play football again.  Word is that he will, but when he will be back to 100% is anyone’s guess.   With Fitz unlikely to be back in top form by the beginning of next season, Michigan is without a go to back.  Thomas Rawls, though a bruiser, hasn’t shown to be to the answer as of yet.  Freshman Drake Johnson has apparently looked good in practice, but has no actual game experience.  The Wolverines are still in the hunt for Super Senior Derrick Green, who is good enough to start as a freshman – but he has to commit first.  In short, no matter what happens, running back is a huge question mark heading into next year.

THE UGLY

  • The Gardner Decision – Due to scheduling and real life, I never had the chance to properly rant about the debacle that was the Nebraska game.  So consider this my belated opportunity to do so.  I’ll start it off by saying  this – it is my opinion that Brady Hoke and the coaching staff owe the entire team an apology for not playing Devin Gardner at quarterback after Denard got hurt.  They should apologize for costing this team a chance to win the Big Ten Title, because that’s exactly what they did.  As we all know by now, after Denard got hurt, Russell Bellomy came in at QB, and the offense became incapable of moving the ball across the street.  I completely understand why Bellomy was the immediate choice.  He was good in practice and by all accounts had taken the backup QB role more seriously than Gardner.  He deserved the shot.  But when it became blatantly clear to everyone that he couldn’t get the job done, Michigan needed to make a change.  I know that Gardner hadn’t been practicing at QB, but how much worse could he have been than a guy that went 3-16 for 38 yards.  Even a sandlot playbook would’ve been more successful – plus Gardner has the threat to run every play.  In hindsight, after seeing what Gardner did in subsequent weeks, its easy to say he would’ve been more successful, but even at the time the coaches should’ve tried him.  If the goal is to win the Big Ten, and you have to win this game to do so, you pull out every stop.  At this point it was clear the winner of this game would have a huge leg up in the division race, so its incomprehensible why the coaches didn’t try everything, including playing Devin Gardner.  This was still a one TD game with 10 minutes to go, so all it was going to take was one play.  Gardner was capable of that, it was clear to everyone Bellomy was not.   In the end, its 100% the reason we are playing in Central Florida instead of Pasadena on January 1. 
  • Ohio State Playcalling – Though it didn’t mean much when it came down to the Big Ten race, the loss in Columbus still hurts, mostly because our playcalling in that game is another head scratcher that I still don’t understand.  There are varying accounts of what Denard was capable of in that game from a throwing standpoint but the key issue I have is this – we never made Ohio State attempt to defend Denard as a passer.  By the 2nd half they knew that when Denard was at QB he was running, and when Gardner was at QB he was likely throwing.  Which made our offense predictable.  This is the same offense that a week earlier had scored touchdowns on six straight drives against Iowa, with all sorts of wrinkles and new plays involving Denard.  Against Ohio State we saw almost none of that.  Hoke blamed it on the flow of the game.  I blame it on the stubbornness of Al Borges.  This isn’t the first time Borges has basically ceded the questionable ground this year.  Against Alabama he barely ran with Denard, because he felt that it wouldn’t have been effective based on Alabama’s defense.  The only problem is that he never forced Bama to stop the run.  The same thing happened in Columbus as we never forced Ohio State to try to defend both Denard and Devin, especially in the 2nd half.   Losing to Ohio State hurts.  But losing to Ohio State while not busting out the entire playbook is beyond frustrating.  Like Nebraska, I never had the chance to completely dissect the game in Columbus, or maybe I just didn’t want to.  Some might argue that like Notre Dame, it came down to execution –  but all you need to know is that on the final interception the Devin Gardner threw, his receiving options were Joe Reynolds, Jeremy Jackson and Drew Dileo.  Our best receivers, Gallon and Roundtree, weren’t on the field, and Devin Funchess was blocking.   Al Borges has a lot of things to prove to me and the rest of the Michigan fanbase on Tuesday in Tampa because right now there are a lot of questions about the way he calls a game.
  • What Could’ve Been – Regardless of the outcome on New Year’s Day, the 2012 season will always be one of the great “what if” seasons for me.  What if we hadn’t had 6 turnovers in South Bend? At the very least Notre Dame wouldn’t be playing for the BCS title.  What if Denard hadn’t gotten hurt?  What if when Denard got hurt Hoke and Borges were smart enough to give Gardner some snaps in Lincoln after Bellomy proved to be ineffective?  What if Borges had used Denard more in Columbus in the 2nd half?  In the end, the games against Notre Dame and Ohio State really only count for style points (though victories in both would’ve landed us in a BCS bowl again).  The one that hurts the most is Nebraska, because I still believe that in a weakened Big Ten, this Michigan team was the cream of the crop, and should’ve at least made it to Indianapolis, and probably Pasadena.  Instead, the best we can hope for is a fun offensive explosion on New Year’s Day to leave a good taste in our mouth heading into 2013.  Nothing to sneeze about – as winning New Year’s Day bowl games is hard to do and is usually reserved for Top 15 caliber teams, but I can’t say I’ll enjoy seeing Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl for the 3rd straight year.
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