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This is why you don’t root for Ohio State

November 22, 2015

Heading into this past Saturday of college football, most Michigan fans were aware that the possibility of something very exciting was on the horizon.  By 3:30, it looked even better as Michigan had accomplished what it set out to do by beating Penn State.  All that was required was for Ohio State to dispatch of a good, but not great, Michigan State team at home and The Game was going to have some real juice for the first time since 2007.  When it was announced that All-American Connor Cook would not be able to play for Michigan State, most fans from all three schools (Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State) thought the game was in the bag for the Buckeyes.  But somebody forgot to tell the Michigan State football team, and nobody remembered to tell Urban Meyer and Ohio State they still had to actually play the game.  Because Ohio State inexplicably lost to Michigan State, robbing both Michigan and Ohio State fans of a weeks worth of hype and excitement that frankly I think both schools have been yearning for.

Thanks to Ohio State’s ineptitude, I won’t get to spend the week reading articles about the parallels between this year and 1969, when a certain first year Michigan coach headed into the Ohio State game with a 9-2 record including a loss to MSU, to face off against the defending National Champion and unbeaten Ohio State Buckeyes.  I won’t get to spend the week hearing pundits discuss how great it is that The Game finally meant something again as this year the winner would head to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Title game and a possible shot at the College Football Playoffs.   While I’ll still get to read about the first meeting between Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh, the stakes won’t be as high, and most of the articles will now center on why Urban’s players are publicly throwing him and his staff under the bus.  And I won’t get to spend the week looking forward to knowing that come 3:30 on Saturday there is a possibility that Michigan would be headed to Indianapolis for a de facto playoff game, with a victory there giving Michigan a very good shot at making the College Football Playoff in Coach Harbaugh’s first year.   In short, thanks to Ohio State’s epic choke job, The Game became about 1/10th as exciting as it could’ve been.  And worse, they may have paved the way for MSU to not only play for the Big Ten Title, but make the playoffs too.

This is what you get for rooting for your arch-nemesis.

As for Michigan, though I didn’t post it on this blog, I privately thought we’d find a way to win 9 games this year.  So I’m going to take some credit for that.  However, I never thought we’d do it in the midst of competing for a Big Ten Title.  If Michigan wins on Saturday and MSU beats Penn State, Michigan is still looking at a 10-2 record with a win over Ohio State and a dropped punt from being in the Big Ten Title game. We’d be at worst playing in a New Year’s Bowl, and if a few things fall our way, possibly the Rose Bowl or another of the Big Six bowls.   Coming off of 5-7, that’s a heck of a turnaround.

That being said, let’s beat the Bucks and hope MSU can choke just the way Ohio State did.  While I expect future seasons to be filled with high stakes late November games, nothing is for certain.  So if we can get a little help from PSU and sneak our way to Indianapolis, I won’t feel bad for one second.

The Good, The Bad and That Play – Michigan State

October 18, 2015
Harbaugh Reacts to Final Play

Harbaugh Reacts to Final Play

Go figure that it would take the most inconceivable play I may have ever seen in football to get me back to writing.  But here I am – please excuse me if I’m a little rusty.

The Good

  • We Lived up to the Hype – Despite all of the storylines heading into the game about how Michigan was “back” and Jim Harbaugh was the savior, there was still the possibility that the 5 game run Michigan had been on was due to inferior competition and that MSU, despite their own injuries and shortcomings, was finally going to be the team that hit Michigan back.  There is no question MSU hit back, but Michigan was up to the task, and then some.  Pretty much any rational fan will agree that Michigan controlled this game and deserved to win.  Leading from start to finish, Michigan was better than MSU at pretty much everything other than a brilliantly designed trick play by MSU and half the time that Connor Cook targeted Aaron Burbridge.   But for the last play, the narrative today is how Michigan not only beat MSU, but really did so by controlling the game, even if it was a one possession game at the end.   This is a Top 10 unbeaten MSU team that has won 30 of its last 33 games, including the Cotton Bowl, the Big Ten Championship Game and the Rose Bowl.  Its starting QB is 29-3 as a starter and was a pre-season Heisman candidate.  And Michigan not only went toe to toe with them, but they outplayed them for the majority of the game.  This was a team that wasn’t supposed to be able to stay on the field against this MSU team when the season started.   Our full coronation may have to wait a year, but we know exactly how we stack up to the top teams in the conference right now.  Here’s the other thing I take solace in – Sparty escaped, and they know it.  Even Mark Dantonio seemed sheepish about the win, knowing it was a gift that he probably didn’t deserve.  Are there Spartan fans who are treating this like they hit a triple despite being born on third base? Absolutely.  But they were going to be delusional anyways.  The majority of their fans knew deep down coming in that Harbaugh had this team and this program righted, and were hoping maybe they were wrong.  They weren’t wrong and now they know that.  They may not be going back to the days of John L. Smith and Bobby Williams anytime soon (though I do expect some regression), but they are quite clear that the honeymoon they enjoyed with RichRod and Hoke is very much over. 
  • The Defense – No, the defense didn’t throw its 4th straight shutout, and gave up more points and yards in this game than its previous 3 combined.  But it still was very, very good.  This was an MSU offense that had scored at least 24 points in 21 straight games, and Michigan held them to just 21 points of offense, 14 of which came on a play MSU had prepared all year to use just once.  Most importantly, with the game on the line late in the 4th quarter, the defense never allowed MSU into FG position and held Connor Cook to 3/9 passing and sacked him twice on the final two drives.  They did what an elite defense is supposed to do in those situations and made big stops.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see the dominance return against Minnesota, PSU, Indiana and Rutgers.
  • Special Teams (Really) – We’ll get to the final play in a bit, but prior to the last play, the special teams had been stellar in almost every facet and was a large part of the reason we not only lead but had controlled the game.  Blake O’Neill had punted spectacularly, including an 80 yard punt early on that was downed inside the 5.   He pinned MSU inside the 10-yard line two more times and gave up a total of four (!) punt return yards all day.  Kenny Allen was just as good,  going 3/3 on FGs (including what should’ve been the winning points) and booting several kickoffs out the end zone.  Michigan also had a 34 yard punt return and a 49 yard kickoff return – both by Jabrill Peppers.  Michigan had a 23-21 lead with 10 seconds to go, and it was largely because of special teams…..(sigh).
  • Stomach Punch Loss > Apathy – Even though its horrible to lose like this and we will see this game and play replayed for years to come, I’d much rather lose like this than how we have lost the last two years against MSU where we pretty much gave up hope at halftime if not earlier.  This was a big game where Michigan was once again not only respected, but expected to win.  I’d prefer to spend my week and gamedays paying attention to a game that not only mattered, but I was confident we could win.  In fact, Michigan outplaying MSU and being the better team yet still managing to lose in the final seconds is one of the harbingers of this rivalry (see Desmond Trip in ’90 and Spartan Bob in ’01).  The planets aren’t fully in re-alignment, but they are pretty close.

The Bad

  • The Outcome – Losing the way we did is going to sting, and probably for a while.  But what really hurts is not only that we had the game in our hands for the taking, or that it was against MSU.  What bothers me is that a win yesterday likely would’ve setup an epic showdown with Ohio State after Thanksgiving for the division title at a minimum, and possibly a playoff berth.  With a game in hand against MSU and the tie breaker over them, Michigan could’ve even lost one more and still entered the OSU game knowing that a win over the Buckeyes would guarantee a trip to the Big Ten Title game in Indianapolis.  Instead, we are left rooting for MSU to lose to Nebraska and Ohio State (not all that far-fetched) and hoping that we can win out to setup that matchup with OSU.  It’s a huge step from where we were last year, but oh what could’ve been.
  • The Officiating – Hanlon’s Razor reminds us not to attribute malice to that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.  That’s my takeaway from the officiating yesterday.  I’m not sure it amounted to a coordinated effort to cheat Michigan, but it was really bad.  The most  preposterous was of course the ejection of Joe Bolden for a phantom targeting.  The fact that upon review they didn’t overturn is downright criminal.  But it wasn’t the only suspect call made all day.  In many cases, it was the lack of calls – particularly holding on the MSU offensive line – that were the most egregious.   My favorite call of the day though was in the 4th quarter after a Michigan punt was downed inside the 10.  The referee called a personal foul on Michigan and pointed towards Michigan, but then instructed his linesman to penalize MSU.  After a lengthy discussion where all the referees tried to figure out who they were really trying to call the flag on, they penalized MSU.  Go figure.  At that point it became apparent that these guys weren’t malicious, just clueless.   Sadly, their ineptitude seemed to impact the play on the field (including on the final play which I’ll explain below).
  • Offense When We Needed It – On one hand, I hesitate to criticize an offense that did enough to win the game.  23 points against an MSU defense, even one not quite as good as the last couple of years, is impressive.  But the frustrating part is that they had opportunities to really put this game away and couldn’t.  Up 20-14, Michigan started with the ball at the MSU 28 yard line after a Peppers punt return, and only managed 8 yards before kicking a field goal.  A touchdown there gives Michigan a potentially two touchdown lead with 10 minutes to go.  Earlier in the game, Michigan had 1st and Goal at the MSU 8 yard line and settled for a FG again when they could’ve pushed the lead to 24-14.   But where the offense really came up short was on its last two drives where it failed to pickup a first down on either.  The first set of downs came up short after Jehu Chesson dropped a very catchable ball that would’ve given Michigan the ball near midfield and a first down.  And while its understandable that Michigan chose to just run a simple dive play and milk the clock in the waning seconds, its disappointing that after picking up 5 yards on 1st down to setup 2nd and 5, Michigan was unable to gain the remaining 5 yards to put the game away completely.  Had Michigan been able to convert in either instance, the final play never occurs as Michigan could’ve run out the clock by taking a knee.
  • Penalties – One area that Michigan surprisingly struggled in was penalties, especially at key times.  The aforementioned 1st and Goal from the 8 yard line was negated by a holding call that turned it into 1st and Goal from the 18.   Earlier in the game, Michigan extended two MSU drives by committing penalties on 3rd Down.  The first continuation allowed MSU to drive from the 2 yard line to midfield after O’Neill’s 80 yard punt.  It flipped the field and cost Michigan valuable field position.  The second penalty, a personal foul, negated a huge 3rd down stop and a likely punt by MSU.  Instead of Michigan taking the ball up 7-0, MSU completed the drive and tied it up with a touchdown.  The penalties Michigan committed were extremely costly in this game, and somewhat uncharacteristic given the first six games.

The Play

  • The Punt – Ok, now I’m ready to talk (write) about it.  Let’s first start with this, Michigan lost the game on what amounts to an interception run back for a touchdown that was thrown by the punter.  In my 30+ years of watching football, I have never (never!) seen that happen I don’t think.  And certainly not to end a game.  It was the most preposterous play I’ve ever seen.  The only think I can think of that comes close is Garo Yapremian of the Miami Dolphins catching his blocked field goal attempt and then attempting to throw the ball.  The Washington Redskins intercepted his equally ugly pass and returned it for a touchdown.  Except in that game the Dolphins were ahead by 14 and the TD was inconsequential to the outcome.  According to ESPN, Michigan’s win percentage expectancy at that moment was 99.8%.  That means out of 1000 times, MSU wins the game only twice.  It was literally a 500-1 shot.  And frankly, that seems high to me.  Watching the replay, it literally took a perfect storm of errors by Michigan and O’Neill to create this outcome.   Even if O’Neill just falls on the ball, or throws it out-of-bounds, MSU still isn’t in field goal range and is left with a one play Hail Mary to try and score.  If the ball stays on the ground and just gets kicked around a bit, it’s even possible time runs out.  If one of the Michigan defenders manages to catch up to Jalen Watts Jackson and tackles him, time probably runs out and Michigan still wins.  And even if Jackson ran it 15 yards to put MSU in field goal position with 1 second to play, MSU’s kicker has been unreliable all year and was kicking into a stiff swirling wind.  Instead, O’Neill manages to drop the snap, pick it up and throw it directly into the hands of Watts-Jackson who is running in the direction of the end zone already and doesn’t even have to break stride.  Forget Kordell Stewart, forget Auburn-Alabama and the kickoff return, even forget Doug Flutie – this is the most inconceivable finish to a football game perhaps ever.  The only exception might be the Stanford/Cal The Band is on The Field game – and that’s because the Stanford band was literally on the field!
  • One Thing Not Discussed Enough – One thing not discussed enough on the last play is the way in which the MSU line tees off on our longsnapper.  The rule in college football is that you have to give the longsnapper 3 steps before you hit him since his head is down and he is an unprotected player.  Its a safety rule and one that has been enforced a decent amount recently.   Go watch the replay and see how our longsnapper gets obliterated by the MSU line.  Now you can say that there is no way the refs are calling that penalty in that situation, but that is precisely why they should – MSU has no incentive not to commit that penalty there. If they think they are almost certain to lose, why not see if you can get away with it at that juncture?  If its 4th and 5 early in the game, it extends a drive.  Here, the worst thing that can happen is that it gives Michigan a first down and ends the game, but that’s about the same odds as Hail Mary from at best your own 20 yard line.  Teeing off on the longsnapper is the smart play here. For an officiating crew that spent so much time focusing on a bogus targeting call in the name of safety, it was a horribly missed call.  I’m not sure it even impacted the punt drop or ensuing play, but if the point is to protect the player, the refs failed.
  • It Was Just a Fluke – Anyone saying that Michigan should’ve lined up differently and had a safety valve behind the punter is off base in my opinion.  As is anyone saying Michigan should’ve gone for it.  Michigan played it exactly how they should have – line up for a regular punt and let the guy who has been absolutely killing it for you go do his thing.  O’Neill had given the staff no reason to think that he wouldn’t come through in this situation, and if he doesn’t drop the snap, he probably drops the punt inside the 5 yard line again.  It was a fluky play that just happened – no hindsight would’ve changed that.

 

The End of Hoke-a-Mania

December 3, 2014

I know I’ve taken a significant hiatus from writing here.  If you want to attribute it to the fact that Michigan football just wasn’t all that exciting to write about, there is probably some truth to that.  But also things like real-life got in the way.

However, Michigan has fired Brady Hoke, and obviously I have some thoughts on the subject that I wanted to share.  So here they are.

If you had told me in January of 2011 we’d be looking for another coach in 4 years, I would have been skeptical.  If you had told me in January of 2012 we’d be looking for another coach in 3 years, I would have thought you were crazy.  Brady Hoke “walked” into Ann Arbor like a breath of fresh air for a program that had spent the previous 3 years with a coach who clearly could coach, but never really “got” Michigan.  Brady said all the right things in his press conference, and his “This is Michigan” statement became a rallying cry that fans were thrilled to embrace.  Even if he wasn’t a big name, he seemingly checked all of the boxes.  He had Michigan ties, loved the school, and even though his record as a head coach wasn’t stellar, he had a history of success at more than one stop.

That first year was truly a honeymoon, with an exciting win over Notre Dame and a victory over Ohio State paving the way to an 11-2 record to only the 3rd BCS bowl win for Michigan since 1993.  For a fan base coming off of a three year 15-22 stretch, it was like manna from heaven.  In January 2012, it wasn’t a question of if Brady would win Big Ten Titles at Michigan, but rather how many.  Even after a 2012 campaign that finished 8-5, things still felt to be on solid ground.  The 5 losses were either on the road or at neutral sites and included three teams (Alabama, OSU and Notre Dame) that would go unbeaten.  We were still going to be ok.

And then the wheels fell off.  The 2013 season was plagued by close wins over average and below average teams and losses to good teams.  The highlights were a moral victory over OSU and a home win against a Notre Dame team that only won 8 games.  It was officially time to start to question the direction of the team and the program.  But given the strong start the first two years, it was possible that 2013 was an aberration.

It wasn’t.  If the wheels fell off in 2013, the engine and transmission fell off in 2014.  A 5-7 record with home losses to Maryland, Utah, Minnesota and a road loss to Rutgers are just unacceptable.  Brady Hoke’s record at Michigan will finish at 31-20, finishing 1-2 in bowl games, a combined 4-8 against Michigan State, Ohio State and Notre Dame, and no conference titles.  He is a by all accounts a wonderful person, a great representative of the University, and a positive role model.  However, he did not win enough football games and Michigan had to fire him. Unlike Rich Rod four years ago, where there was a somewhat legitimate argument for keeping him, I’m not sure anybody other than Brady’s staff is making a case for him to stay.

So what went wrong?  How did we get from “This is Michigan” and a Sugar Bowl Win to fired in just 3 short years?

To begin with, there were probably signs along the way that some of this was smoke and mirrors.  Brady’s signature wins in the first two seasons included an almost miracle win against Notre Dame, a narrow victory over a 6-6 Ohio State team, a narrow victory in the Sugar Bowl in which Michigan was almost outgained by a 2-1 margin, and a home victory over a 7-6 MSU team in which Michigan did not score a touchdown.  We all wanted to believe Brady was the solution because he was winning, but Brady’s 4 “signature” wins were all 1 play each away from being significant losses.

Another factor to consider is that Denard Robinson may have hid many of our warts.  With Denard as a starter, Brady was 17-4 and 14-16 without him.  To be fair, it may actually be related to a number of players graduating and moving on rather than just Denard, but he was the catalyst for much of our success.  Regardless, the farther we got from the Rich Rod regime, the worse the record got.

In the end though, in ways different from Rich Rod, Brady just wasn’t capable of winning at this level.  Rich Rod had his revolving door of defensive coordinators that lead to some of the worst defenses in Michigan history.  Brady was a tad more loyal, but had his problems in developing an offensive identity, an offensive line, and probably most importantly, a quarterback.  While both the offensive line and the offensive identity progressed this year, Devin Gardner regressed to a point where he needed to be replaced, but there was no viable alternative.  Whether it was the switch to wide receiver and then back to quarterback, injuries, playing behind an offensive line last year that left him shellshocked, or defenses figuring him out, Gardner never looked as good in 2013 or 2014 as he did in 2012. Back then, I thought he looked like a shoe-in for a Heisman candidate in a couple of years.  Instead, he took a steady decline backwards, and not surprisingly, so did the team.

Even if the offensive woes had righted themselves, there were still too many head scratching timeouts, lack of timeouts, substitutions and of course Concussion Gate to really continue to believe in Brady Hoke.  For me, when Brady refused to put Devin Gardner in at halftime of the Minnesota game, despite how poorly Shane Morris had played, it was apparent to me that he was either too stubborn or too unaware to win at Michigan.  Ever since then, we’ve just been playing out the hand.

All of that being said, Brady deserves credit for keeping the team together when it was clear the ship was sinking.  Michigan never mailed it in, never gave up, and even went down to Columbus and gave a good showing when they could’ve just rolled over.  Brady always did his best for Michigan, and while I support him being let go, I’m never happy to see someone lose their job.  And in this case it is especially difficult knowing that this was Brady’s dream job and the top of the mountain for him.

What’s Next? 

So now, we search for a new coach for the 3rd time in 7 years.  By all accounts, Interim AD Jim Hackett will be hiring the new coach and then sticking around for awhile.  This will be his call.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are probably aware that there is a pretty successful former Michigan quarterback who is also a pretty successful NFL coach in San Francisco that many would like to see get the job.  Jim Harbaugh is likely Plan A, B, and C for Michigan.  Michigan will do everything they can to get him to come home to Ann Arbor.  But just because Michigan wants him and because Jim is a former player for Bo doesn’t mean he’s coming to Ann Arbor.  There are several obstacles in the way that first need to be managed.

  1. To begin with, Jim still has a job as the 49ers head coach.  All signs point to that not being the case sometime in the next 30-45 days, but the rumor is that Jim would prefer to stay as the 49ers head coach and won’t voluntarily leave.
  2. Even if the 49ers don’t want Jim, they won’t necessarily fire him. Ideally they would like to trade him to another NFL team and receive draft picks in return.  The Oakland Raiders and New York Jets have already expressed interest and there will be other suitors once the NFL coaching carousel starts.  This way, the Niners can also control where he coaches next (if its in the NFL) and they won’t have to pay him the remainder of his contract.  The challenge here is that Jim would have to approve a trade and likely have to sign a contract extension with the new team.  Something he is unlikely to do unless he really wants to coach there and believes the team can win a Super Bowl relatively soon.
  3. If the 49ers decide they want to part ways with Jim, and he doesn’t find any viable NFL alternatives, that is when Michigan likely comes into play.  Its possible Michigan could jump ahead of other NFL teams in matter of preference regardless of which teams are interested, but it appears Jim wants to see what options are available before giving Michigan an answer.
  4. The other scenario that could play out here is that Jim goes directly to the 49ers and tells them that he wants to coach Michigan.  They let him out of his contract at that point and the deal is done.  That will require Jim to act proactively for the Michigan job, something that will  only happen if he decides that he doesn’t want to pass up what might be his only chance to coach at Michigan.  Unlike Les Miles and Brady Hoke, by many accounts Jim looks at Michigan as a place he would like to coach, but not necessarily his final destination.

Jim Harbaugh absolutely is a candidate for the Michigan job, and will be pursued heavily.  But the ball rests in his court.  And barring something strange, Michigan fans will likely have to be patient to wait until the end of the 49ers season for Jim to make a decision.  Four years ago we were in the same situation, and despite saying yes to the job on more than one occasion, Jim eventually took the 49ers job.  That could very well happen again.

Other Candidates 

If Jim Harbaugh does leave Michigan at the altar again, who might end up as the coach?  Here is a list of who Michigan will likely reach out to, who will not make the list, and even a couple out of the box ideas.

Home Run Hires 

  • Bob Stoops, Oklahoma – Second to only Harbaugh, Stoops would be a home run hire.  He has had a decade plus of success at Oklahoma, which is why he might be ready to leave.  The Sooners are good but not great, and both sides might think the grass is greener on the other side by making a change.  His name keeps coming up as a Plan B alternative to Harbaugh, so I think Michigan will at least pick up the phone.  I think Stoops would listen too.
  • Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints – Seems farfetched, and it probably is.  But Payton is a huge Michigan fan, as is his son. They’ve attended games at the Big House and the Final Four decked out in their Michigan gear.  I don’t think he’ll hang up on Michigan right away, but its doubtful he leaves a great NFL job to take the Michigan job.
  • Mark Richt, Georgia – Like Stoops, Richt has enjoyed great success at Georgia, though the highs haven’t been quite as high.  Several Georgia fans and donors would like to see him move on.  He’d be a great choice or Michigan – he’s accomplished and is well respected.  But unless Georgia forces him out, he’s unlikely to come.

Ground Rule Doubles 

  • David Shaw, Stanford – If you can’t get Jim Harbaugh, his protege might be the next best thing.  Shaw has kept the train chugging along in Palo Alto since Jim left, going 41-12 in the last four years.  He’s young, a great recruiter, and could handle the academic/athletic balance in Ann Arbor.  The only problem is that he’s a Stanford grad himself and might not be willing to leave his alma mater behind.
  • Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern – Fitzgerald has been mentioned before, and though he hasn’t been a stellar coach at Northwestern, its still Northwestern.  He’s made them respectable, and could do more with more talent.  He was more attractive 4 years ago, but still should get a look. He may be happy to stay at Northwestern though.
  • Steve Addazio, Boston College – The former Temple coach and current Boston College coach seems to be on a lot of lists.  Perhaps because he works for potential permanent AD candidate Brad Bates.  Addazio has done “ok” at BC, but isn’t a proven champion.  He’d take the job for sure, just not sure Michigan would call him.
  • Butch Jones, Tennessee – The former CMU, Cincinnati and current Vol coach would be a pretty solid choice.  He has strong ties to the midwest, knows Michigan in particular, and though he hasn’t set the world on fire in Knoxville just yet, has been successful everywhere else he has been. He’ll likely make the short list, and Michigan could do worse.
  • Bret Bielema, Arkanasas – Bielema knows the Big Ten and was successful here.  But he just got to Arkansas – would he jump back to the Big Ten after enjoying SEC life?  Maybe.
  • Greg Schiano, Unemployed – Schiano almost got the job 7 years ago (and maybe even accepted before reneging), but wasn’t really in the  mix 4 years ago.  He’s a very good coach without a home right now.  He’s on the list, but probably a little farther down and is someone Michigan would consider after they’v exhausted other options.
  • Mark Stoops, Kentucky – Bob Stoops younger brother doesn’t bring as much acclaim, but he’s a proven coach with a reputation as a great recruiter.  He was a little more likely earlier this year before Kentucky lost 6 of their last 8, but he could very well be considered.

Never Say Never Candidates

  • John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens – Like Sean Payton, its unlikely a Super Bowl Winning Coach of a very good NFL franchise would leave for college, but John, like his brother, has strong ties to Michigan.  Earlier this year the timing may have seemed better given the Ray Rice scandal.  Now, John is very unlikely to make the jump.  But if Jim says no, he might consider it.
  • Les Miles, LSU – Seven years ago Les was rumored to have accepted the gig though its more likely he was never officially offered it.  Four years ago he wasn’t really considered.  Now, he might be Michigan’s insurance policy.  A guy who desperately wants the job, but for whatever reasons isn’t likely to be on Michigan’s list.  But if they can’t get another name they like, they might have no choice.  But its’ doubtful.

Way Outside of the Box 

  • Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana Lafayette – The former North Alabama coach and current leader of the Rajun Cajuns is a proven winner, in position to win 9 games and a bowl game for the 4th year in a row.  At North Alabama he regularly won 10+ games and advanced to the Division II semifinals three times.  With no midwest ties he’s unlikely to get a look, but remember the name.  He’ll be a winner somewhere.
  • PJ Fleck, Western Michigan – A 34 year old wunderkind in his first head coaching gig, Fleck took the Broncos from 1-11 in his first year to 8-4 this year.  He’s young, hungry and already in-state.  Probably a little too green for Michigan at this point, but if Pat Narduzzi leaves East Lansing before Dantonio retires, Fleck might be across the sideline for quite a few years.

What’s Next

The Only Michigan State vs. Michigan Preview You Need

November 1, 2013

Michigan vs. MSU

Michigan vs. Michigan State

November 2, 2013 – 3:30 PM

East Lansing, Michigan 

What’s at Stake

In short, everything.  While the previous three or four contests between Michigan and MSU have been about bragging rights, continuing streaks and breaking streaks, this one doesn’t have that same cache.  With Michigan breaking MSU’s four game win streak last year all either team is concerned about (or at least should be concerned about) is winning this game so that they can sit atop the Legends Division and have the inside track for the Big Ten Title game in Indianapolis.  For Michigan, with a loss to Penn State already on its record, this is an absolute must-win.  A loss to MSU would put them 2 games behind the Spartans in the division, and since MSU would hold the tie-breaker by virtue of winning this game, Michigan would likely need 3 Spartan losses in the last 3 games in order to win the division (not happening).   For MSU, a loss tomorrow puts the teams even in the division, but gives Michigan the tiebreaker.  Though the Wolverines could still lose another game, it means MSU would have to win out, which requires them to win at Northwestern and at Nebraska.  Possible, but a tough task.   I think the winner of tomorrow’s game goes to Indianapolis.  So yeah – it’s a big one.  

When MSU Has the Ball 

Four weeks ago, the best way to refer to the MSU offense was a QB Carousel, or if you’re a little less kind, a dumpster fire.  Mark Dantonio couldn’t find a QB he was comfortable with, and rightfully so – none of them had figured out how to put up more than 300 yards of offense or more than 26 points unless they were playing an FCS school.  But during their bye week the Spartans figured something out with Connor Cook, and have gone from dumpster fire to slightly above average and bordering on decent.  It’s no secret what MSU wants to do when on offense – control the ball with the running game, complete short passes to keep the chains moving, and wait for a short field setup by their defense in order to score points.   They’ve managed to do that pretty well the last 4 games, with the emergence of Connor Cook as the clear cut starter. Through the first four games, Cook was only completing 53% of his passes and though he had a respectable 5/0 touchdown to interception ratio – 4 of those TD’s came against Youngstown State.  Since then he’s been a different QB, completing 65% of his passes while averaging a respectable 207 yards per game through the air.   He also has benefited from the improved play of running back Jeremy Langford.  Langford has rushed for over 100 yards in each of the last three games with an average of almost 5 yards per carry.  Langford isn’t a homerun type of back, but he’s a bruiser who will consistently move the chains.   When MSU does look to go to the air they’ll focus on short and intermediate manageable passes.  Macgarrett Kings Jr. has become Cook’s favorite target, with 26 catches on the year.  He, along with senior Bennie Fowler have some big play potential if you let them get into space.  

Defensively, Michigan has been one of the better units in the Big Ten, though some late game meltdowns against Penn State and a track meet style game versus Indiana have skewed those stats a bit.  Michigan’s plan against everyone is to force the offense to drive the field in small chunks and protect against big plays.  In an odd way that may play right into MSU’s hands as Connor Cook as suddenly become incredibly accurate and efficient throwing the ball (15/16 last week) and Jeremy Langford just looks to move the chains.  Michigan will need to get some pressure on Cook to rattle him early.  He’s a young QB, and despite playing on the road against Notre Dame, this will be the biggest game he’s played in.  For Michigan though, the key has to be to stop the run and slow down Langford.  He’s not a great back, but if he can set Cook up in 3rd and less than 5 yards, Cook will have the ability to pick up first downs.    The other thing to look for is turnovers.  Michigan is forcing 2 turnovers per game while MSU has been especially good at protecting the football with only 3 interceptions from their quarterbacks total all season.  Michigan’s ability to pick up an extra offensive possession, potentially in MSU territory, could have a big impact on what should be a low scoring game.  

When Michigan has the Ball 

Seven games into the season and Michigan’s offense and MSU’s defense couldn’t be in more different places in terms of stability.  MSU has known from day one of the season what they want to do on defense, and they’ve done it.  MSU will shut down the run and intermediate passing game and force you to beat them downfield with big pass plays – something most college teams can’t do on a regular basis.  They are aggressive with their blitzes and hope to turn the ball over by pressuring you into bad decisions.  The defense is led by linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen two of the better linebackers in the country.  The defensive line may not have the star power of a guy like Will Gholston or Jerel Worthy, but they are a solid unit who don’t take plays off.  The other player to watch out for in the front seven is Shilique Calhoun, who has 3 touchdowns himself, as a defensive lineman!  In the secondary, Darqueze Dennard will be playing on Sundays in the future and is a top end cornerback.    All in all, this will be by far the best defense Michigan plays all season, and one that has quite frankly had Michigan’s number the last four years, despite last year’s win.  

For Michigan, we still don’t have a good feel for what we have offensively.  The upside is that despite the ridiculous amount of turnovers and the revolving door at interior offensive line, Michigan is putting up 42+ points per game and has a Top 10 offense.  In fact, Michigan has hit the 40 point mark in every game except Akron and UConn – where they had 4 turnovers in each game.  The problem is that Michigan still can’t decide if they want to be a power offense or a spread offense, and still find themselves bouncing back and forth between the two.  Against Indiana the spread it out, let loose, and put up 63 points.   Obviously Michigan won’t be able to replicate anything close to that against MSU, but they may have found a game plan that works based on the Indiana game.  

The emergence of Devin Funchess at wide receiver has opened up things for Jeremy Gallon again – who should become Michigan’s first 1,000 yard receiver since Mario Manningham in 2007.  The ability to throw downfield to both Funchess and Gallon will mean that Michigan should have a matchup they can take advantage of, depending on who Dennard is not covering.   Toussaint also looked more comfortable from a mostly spread offense two weeks ago putting up 150 yards on the ground.   

The real X-factor here will be Devin Gardner though.  When he’s been good (see Notre Dame and Indiana) he’s been unstoppable.  But when he’s been bad, we’ve almost lost to UConn and Akron.  We’ve seen what the MSU defense has done to Denard Robinson the last couple of years, but Devin is a different QB than Denard.  Unlike Denard, Devin has a better arm and actually has some real downfield receivers who can make plays at his disposal.  Beyond that, Denard wasn’t all that great at the read option play.  Gardner is very very good at the read option and I could see that giving MSU some challenges since it will leave Gardner one on one with a linebacker.  Which leads me to my last point – Denard was a fast runner, but he didn’t have great “shake” like Devin does.  Gardner can make a couple of guys miss and turn a 3 yard gain into a 15 yard gain.  Don’t be surprised to see that happen a couple of times tomorrow.  Gardner also runs off of designed pass plays better than Denard ever did – he has a knack for knowing when to tuck and run.  MSU will account for this, but again, if Gardner makes one guy miss, we could see some long QB runs.    This MSU defense is a very good unit, but individually they aren’t the most talented or athletic guys.  That’s not a knock, just the truth.  The sum is better than the parts.  

Putting all that aside to me this matchup comes down to two things.  1) Can Devin Gardner protect the football and not turn it over?  If he can, Michigan will eventually move the ball and score points.  If he can’t, the Michigan State defense will eat him alive and it will be a long afternoon for the maize and blue.  2) Can Gallon, Gardner, and Funchess make enough plays in one on one opportunities to create enough offense for Michigan?  If Gallon and Funchess can make a few plays downfield, does MSU have to change up its pressure defense that leaves its corners on an island?  And if Gardner breaks a few long runs will MSU adjust their blitzing?    MIchigan doesn’t need to score a ton of points to win this game, but they will need to get in the endzone more than they have in the past 4 years. 

Special Teams

Both teams potentially have the chance to be very good in this area.  For MSU, punter Mike Sadler is one of the better punters in the Big Ten.  And he’s been known to create some excitement with a fake punt here or there.  Freshman Mike Geiger has done a nice job kicking in recent weeks and has the ability to be both consistent and hit a long kick too.  For Michigan, the hero from last year’s game Brendan Gibbons started the season very strong, but after a late game collapse against Penn State he has looked a little shaky.   Michigan will need him back in top form against an MSU defense that limits touchdowns.  The other concern for Michigan is punting and kickoffs, where Matt Wile has been inconsistent.  Michigan needs to be able to control field position to keep MSU’s offense from a short field.  Neither team has been particularly successful on kickoff or punt returns, but Michigan’s Dennis Northfleet always looks like he’s one man away from breaking a big one.  Perhaps this is the week? 

Intangibles 

As noted before, with no chips on the shoulder about breaking streaks or winning where you haven’t won in a long time, this will just be about Michigan and MSU lining up and playing football.  The one major intangible could be the weather.  Right now the forecast is calling for a 50% chance of rain and weather in the 40’s.  That’s not ideal for Michigan, who is going to want to pass the ball a little more.  That being said, Michigan managed to do that very well against Indiana, so they may feel comfortable in bad weather.  The other real intangible that I’ve already discussed will be the turnovers.  It’s part of the game, but sometimes fluke things happen.  For MSU, a fluke turnover here or there could put their defense in a bad spot.  And for Michigan, will an oddly tipped pass that turns into an interception ruin Devin Gardner’s confidence?  

Recipe for a Michigan Win

  1. Downfield Passing Success – It’s clear that MSU’s defense is designed to force you to complete downfield passes.  Michigan has the ability to do that with Funchess and Gallon.  If Michigan can hit a couple of those plays early, it should soften up the MSU defense and will likely lead to points.  
  2. Get Ahead Early – The MSU offense is not designed to play from behind.  They tried it against Notre Dame and struggled.  If Michigan can get an early touchdown (or two) and make MSU play catchup, they’ll be in good shape.  Additionally, MSU seems to get stronger as the game goes on, so Michigan might need a cushion. 
  3. Limited Turnovers – I’m not naive enough to think Michigan won’t turn the ball over.  They will.  It’s just a matter of limiting it to 1 or even 2.  If Michigan can pull a few turnovers back from MSU to offset any losses, that’s even better. 
  4. Run the Ball – 40 of the last 43 games in this rivalry have gone to the team with the most rushing yards.  If Michigan lines up with two tight ends and a fullback and runs into the line all day, I’ll go insane.  But sweeps, read option, QB scrambles can all add up and move the chains.  Trying to throw downfield all game isn’t going to work – this isn’t Indiana.  
  5. Composure! – Playing in East Lansing is a tough assignment.  It’s even tougher with a later start.  Throw in the way MSU likes to push the lines of on-field decorum and cheap shots and Michigan is going to have to stay calm for 60 minutes and just play football.  I’m not as worried about retaliatory penalties as I am about just focusing on the next play.  

Prediction

If you’ve been paying attention all week, you’d think Michigan has no shot to win this game.  MSU has a defense that can’t be stopped, and despite its 6-1 record, Michigan might as well pack it in for the season.  And to be fair, lackluster performances against Akron, UConn and Penn State warrant some of that – but not all of it.  MSU has had its fair share of struggles this year – including slow starts against Western Michigan, South Florida and just two weeks ago against Purdue.  In short, Michigan and MSU are more similar than anyone is admitting.  While MSU has the best defense, Michigan is no slouch.  Offensively, Michigan’s offense is as prolific as any in the country – the only problem being you have no idea whether that offense or the offense determined to give games away will show up.  MSU brings a more consistent approach to their offense, but even when consistent there is questions about how good that offense is.  Last week’s performance against Illinois will need to be repeated before it is classified as a anything other than an aberration.  

My gut is telling me that much like 2005 and even 2007, this is a game where conventional wisdom goes out the window and Michigan comes into East Lansing and surprises everyone.  My head however reminds me that conventional wisdom knows that Michigan has scored an average of 15.75 points against MSU in the last 4 contests and that number drops to 13 points per game since Al Borges came to town.  Losing 4 of the last 5 doesn’t help either.  Throw in the fact that Michigan is 5-6 in true road games under Brady Hoke and 6-8 overall in games away from the Big House and conventional wisdom sounds a little more compelling.  Since none of those 5 wins have come against teams with a winning records you have to come to the conclusion that Michigan beating MSU would be a departure from the past.  Past results are not necessarily an indication of future results, but I’m going to need to see Michigan do it before I can predict that they’ll do it.  

So yes, I’m pinching my nose and picking MSU.  

Michigan State 19

Michigan 16

The Road to Indy Week 5

October 30, 2013

Between last week (which I missed) and this week, we’re getting a little more clarity on who is primed to end up in Indy.

THE LEADERS

Ohio State 8-0 (4-0) – The Buckeyes continued to roll with a come from behind win over Iowa at home and a throttling of Penn State on Saturday night.  OSU continues to leap over the hurdles put in their way.  With at least a 2.5 game lead over everyone except Wisconsin in the division and de facto 2 game lead over Wisconsin due to owning the tiebreaker, the Buckeyes will need to lose 2 of their last 4 in order to not end up in Indy.  With a remaining schedule of @Purdue, @Illinois, Indiana and @Michigan, that seems highly unlikely.

Wisconsin 5-2 (3-1) – The Badgers continue to stay mathematically in the race, but still need 2 Buckeye losses if they want to go to Indy.  If Wisconsin gets past a road game at Iowa this week, they could end up 10-2 very easily, with BYU, Indiana, Minnesota and Penn State remaining on the schedule, but I still don’t see them in Indy.  They could sneak into a BCS bowl if they finish 10-2 though and things fall right for them.

Everyone else – Indiana, Purdue, Penn State, and Illinois have a combined 2 wins in Big Ten play.  That’s all you need to know.  The only excitement left among these 4 is to see if Indiana can win 3 of the last 5 to get bowl eligible.  That’s probably not going to happen with road games at Wisconsin and Ohio State left, but you never know.

THE LEGENDS

Michigan State 7-1 (4-0) – The Spartans rebounded from a lackluster 14-0 win over Purdue at home by thumping Illinois 42-3 on the road.  The Spartans continue to improve, and though the offense doesn’t scare good defenses, it doesn’t need to with the #1 ranked defense in the country to protect them.  MSU hosts Michigan this week in a huge game for both.  If MSU wins, they will stand alone a top the Legends division and have a 2 game lead over Michigan.   While the final three games feature road games to Nebraska and Northwestern, MSU would control their own destiny and could basically sew up the division with a win in Lincoln.

Michigan 6-1 (3-1) – After the loss to Penn State 3 Saturdays ago, Michigan got “well” against Indiana last week.  They enjoyed a bye this past weekend, which they desperately needed as they prepare for a huge matchup against MSU in East Lansing.  As noted above, an MSU win basically eliminates Michigan from the division race, as they’d either need a 3-way tie at 6-2  or an MSU collapse in the final 3 games to have a shot.  The 6-2 scenario is unlikely, as it would require Michigan to beat Nebraska, and Nebraska to beat MSU, but then for Nebraska to win their remaining games and for MSU to drop another.  And even then, who knows who would win those tiebreakers?  And MSU starting 7-1 and then dropping the last 3 just isn’t going to happen.  In short, this is an absolute MUST win for Michigan.

Nebraska 5-2 (2-1) – Nebraska, who held the inside track to Indy until this week by virtue of hosting MSU at home and already a game up on Michigan, blew that position by losing at Minnesota this week.  The Cornhuskers, who seemed to rebound after their period of flux from earlier in the season may be back in a tailspin with fans in Lincoln calling for coach Bo Pelini’s head.  The schedule is not kind to Nebraska either, as they play Northwestern, @Michigan, MSU, @PSU and Iowa in consecutive weeks the rest of the way.  They still control their own destiny and will win the division if they go unbeaten the rest of the way – but that’s asking a lot for a team that just lost on the road to Minnesota.

Everyone else – Iowa and Minnesota are still in the running technically, but its going to require some serious work on their part, and some luck, as both are 2-2 and have lost to teams ahead of them in the standings which means they need multiple losses by others in order to have a shot.  Oh, and they have to win out too.  Minnesota will play in a bowl by virtue of their victory over Nebraska to get to 6 wins, and Iowa should get their soon too.  As for Northwestern….4 straight Big Ten losses have taken the Wildcats from Big Ten to contender to questionable bowl team.  Northwestern needs to win 2 of their last 4 just to get to 6 wins and the schedule is brutal.  Nebraska and Illinois on the road, and Michigan and MSU at home.  They can win 2 of those, but given they’ve lost 4 in a row, I’m not sure I trust them too.

BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREDICTION:  I’ve said it since Week 1 of the season was in the books, and I’m not changing my pick – OSU will win the Leaders.  As for the Legends, I had thought Nebraska was the favorite, but their loss to Minnesota has changed that.  MSU has looked the best recently and also has the record and the schedule in their favor.  If MSU doesn’t beat Michigan, all bets are off – but for this week it looks like a Sparty vs. Buckeyes party in Indy.

The Road to Indy – Week 3

October 17, 2013

Even with just over half the league playing on Saturday, we gained a significant amount of insight into where these division races are headed.

THE LEADERS

Ohio State 6-0 (2-0) – The Buckeyes didn’t play, but still sit atop the leaders and hold the tiebreaker over Wisconsin.  A Badgers loss to Northwestern would’ve unofficially locked up the division for the Buckeyes, but in my opinion that’s already happened anyways.

Wisconsin 4-2 (2-1) – The Badgers looked like the Big Ten’s second best team by throttling Northwestern in Madison.  With no Michigan, MSU, or Nebraska on the schedule, I could see the Badgers coasting the rest of the way to a 7-1 conference record, but still on the outside looking in for the Big Ten title game.  A likely BCS bowl wouldn’t hurt as a consolation however.

Indiana 3-3 (1-1) – Last week I said that I had to officially still discuss the Hoosiers since they hadn’t lost a game and still had a chance at the title technically, though not in practice.   After their loss in East Lansing, the Hoosier would now need to run the table to end up in Indy.  With games at Michigan (this week), at Ohio State and at Wisconsin on the table, that’s just not in the cards.  In fact, its more likely that Indiana fails to get bowl eligible than it is that they end up in Indy for the championship game.

The Pick for Indy: Until they lose, it absolutely has to be Ohio State.  Wisconsin’s victory over Northwestern will keep this interesting for a few more weeks, but the Buckeyes still have to lose twice in order for the Badgers to get the nod.  That’s possible, but highly unlikely.

THE LEGENDS

Nebraska 5-1 (2-0) – The Cornhuskers looked solid in a 44-7 trashing of Purdue in West Lafayette.  The fact that they did it once again without Taylor Martinez playing was impressive.  With no Ohio State or Wisconsin on the schedule and MSU and Northwestern at home, I continue to think the Cornhuskers have the easiest path to Indy.

Michigan State 5-1 (2-0) – MSU kept pace with Nebraska atop the legends with a relatively easy victory over Indiana in East Lansing.  The Spartans early season offense woes seem less of an issue now, making MSU a very real threat to win the division.  This week’s home game against Purdue should be a relatively easy victory before the Spartans play the meat of their schedule – including Michigan, at Nebraska and at Northwestern in consecutive weeks.  For now though, the Spartans are still the co-favorites along with Nebraska. 

Michigan 5-1 (1-1) – Michigan spent Saturday night trying to find a way to give the game to the undermanned Nittany Lions.  They finally found a way to do so in the 4th overtime.  Every flaw that Michigan needed to be concerned about coming in was realized.  Turnovers, inability to run the football, and lack of a killer instinct all played a role in allowing Penn State to first get ahead and then hang around long enough to tie things at the end.  For Michigan the only good news is that this was a loss out of the division, but they can longer afford a loss to MSU, Nebraska or Northwestern if they want to win this division.  The winner will likely have no more than 2 conference losses, so Michigan has to win those 3 games against the other contenders in order to hold onto the tiebreakers if it gets to that point.  

Northwestern 4-2 (0-2) – The Wildcats failed to rebound from their tough loss to Ohio State at home and were soundly beat by Wisconsin 35-6.  Though Northwestern isn’t technically eliminated, especially since both losses are outside the division, they will now need to run the table in order to have a chance at winning the division.  With a game at Nebraska plus Michigan and MSU still coming to Evanston, it will be a tough mountain for the Wildcats to climb.  They aren’t finished yet, but it’s amazing how in two weeks they went from potentially division favorite to needing a miracle to end up in Indy.   

Iowa 4-2 (1-1) – I know that technically Iowa sits ahead of Northwestern in the standings, but this is about likelihood to end up in Indianapolis, not the current standings.  The truth is, I’m only keeping Iowa here as a courtesy because they still only have 1 loss.  But with games at Nebraska and Ohio State, as well as home games against Northwestern, Michigan and Wisconsin – this isn’t going to end well.  Given the schedule, the “gimme” win I see left is Purdue, and the Hawkeyes could be underdogs in the remaining 5.  

The Pick for Indy:  At this point Nebraska and MSU hold the lead, and there’s no reason to pick against either of them, especially given the schedule.  I’m sticking with the Cornhuskers, mostly because they get the Spartans in Lincoln.  

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – Penn State

October 15, 2013

MIchigan Penn State

The Good

  • 2nd Half Devin Gardner – Once again someone decided to spike my Devin Gardner Kool-Aid in the first half as Devin lead Michigan to 10 points, but also committed 3 turnovers and kept Penn State in the game.  In the 2nd Half, he was a different player who made more than enough plays to walk away as the winning quarterback.  Devin put up over 200 yards of offense and led Michigan on 3 straight scoring drives in the 3rd and 4th quarter to turn a 4 point deficit into a 10 point lead.  Had the Michigan coaches not decided to neuter him on the final series, he probably would’ve helped us close out the game with another scoring drive or game ending drive.  Gardner’s talent’s were on full display as he was elusive, a great running threat and an above average passer in the second half.  It’s too bad the story we aren’t reading this week is about how he rebounded from a brutal start.
  • Frank Clark – I’m not sure if it was the return of Jake Ryan or just one of the games where Frank Clark decided to show up, but Clark was a monster on Saturday.  Constantly drawing double teams and being held, but still ending up with 2 sacks and a fumble recovery for a touchdown that changed the momentum of the game early in the 2nd half.  This version of Frank Clark is an NFL player and we need to see more of him.
  • The Return of Jake Ryan – Speaking of Jake Ryan – he’s back!  Ryan played a significant amount on Saturday and instantly made a difference, tallying three tackles, including a stop on 4th and short to stifle a Penn State drive early in the game.  On the whole the defense just looked more aggressive with Ryan on the field.  Despite a box score that shows a Michigan defense that gave up 43 points, I thought the defense played very well for most of the game – and I think the return of Jake Ryan had a lot to do with that.
  • Resilient Team – Listen, trailing 21-10 on the road at a place like Happy Valley is a daunting task.  I was very impressed by the way Michigan dominated most of the 2nd half and turned the game around.  Even after the shocking comeback by the Nittany Lions to tie it, Michigan continued to make plays in overtime that should’ve ended up in victories had we just been able to make a field goal. And had the coaching staff not played not to lose instead of to win at the end of regulation, I think we’re talking about a memorable comeback and a gutsy road win this week.
  • Only 1 Loss – If you’re going to lose a Big Ten game, it’s better to lose one outside of the division.  Despite how bad they’ve played as of late, Michigan still controls its own destiny.  Road games at MSU and Northwestern will be very tough, among others – but Michigan can win those games.  As bad as Michigan has played this year at times, its only lost once, and still has a chance to do some things if they can fix some of these issues.   In fact, the schedule sets up very nicely for that.  A home game against Indiana that we should win (though you never know) followed by a bye week and a trip to East Lansing to play MSU.  Given the way we’ve played as of late, I’m not inclined to predict that we beat MSU, but it’s certainly possible, especially after a bye week.  If I’m Hoke, I figure out a way to get through this week and then regroup before the trip to East Lansing.

The Bad

  • Field Goals – So apparently Brendan Gibbons’ mind was somewhere other than brunette girls on Saturday.  Clearly not his best effort, with a missed 52 yarder at the end of regulation (excusable) and a blocked 40 yarder and missed 33 yarder in overtime (both shocking and inexcusable).  If he makes any of those three, we’re complaining about a game that was too close for comfort, but a win.  Instead, Gibbons magic leg lost its mojo late and it cost Michigan the game.  It’s unfair to heap too much blame on him given that the game should’ve been salted away long before he was asked to kick again.  But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Gibbons has to make those kicks in OT.
  • Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory – A couple of times in the last year Michigan has snatched victory from the jaws of defeat (see Northwestern in 2012 and Akron and UConn this year). Saturday was Michigan’s turn to do the opposite. This one was a shocking meltdown on many levels.  Based on advanced metrics, Michigan had a 97 percent chance of winning once they got a first down with 3 minutes to go at the Penn State 27 yard line.  But the offense sputtered, the coach made a mistake, and then the defense failed them.  What makes it even worse is that Michigan had not one, but two more chances to win the game in overtime, and again managed to not finish the job.  It’s tough to even point the finger in one direction as the playcalling, decision making, offensive struggles, defensive struggles and missed field goals all helped cost us the game at one point or another.  That was a humbling sentence to write.  In any case, given the way we’ve won some games over the last few years, this probably all evens out, but its beyond frustrating to have at least 3, maybe 4 chances to win and never put the game away. 
  • Definition of Insanity – Michigan ran the ball 30 times between Fitz Toussaint and Derrick Green.  And gained a mind boggling 28 yards.  If the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting different results….well…you get the point.  I don’t know why Al Borges kept calling those running plays.  Initially I thought it was to setup a playaction rollout for Devin Gardner, but since that never occurred, the only explanation is that eventually he though Toussaint or Green would break a bigger run.  He would be wrong about that.  I thought Borges made some very nice playcalls and adjustments in the 2nd half, but I still can’t justify giving the 22nd – 30th carries to the backs when it’s clear what the previous 21 carries have produced.
  • The First “Bad” Loss – While there have been some ups and downs in the first 2.5 years of the Hoke regime, for the most part Michigan has met or exceeded expectations.  An inaugural season with only two losses – both on the road to above average teams (MSU and Iowa) was understandable.  Last year showcased  5 losses, but they were to teams with a combined record of 58-6 (!).  For the most part, Michigan hadn’t really bombed out against a bad opponent.  And even this year’s struggles were still overshadowed by ugly wins.  On Saturday that all changed.  Michigan lost to a Penn State team that was 3-2 coming into the game and had just lost to Indiana by 20 points.  The bloom is officially off the rose with this loss.  Even a banged up and young Michigan team should’ve handled this PSU team with ease.  This one can absolutely be filed under “games Michigan should win but didn’t”.

The Ugly

  • Poor Discipline – Last week Michigan put forth its cleanest game maybe of the Hoke era.  2 penalties and no turnovers.  On Saturday they reverted to their old form, with 3 turnovers and 7 penalties for 62 yards.   Two of the turnovers lead directly to PSU touchdowns and the penalties were just as damaging.   The two that jump out the most is a 15 yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by Kyle Kalis that turned a 3rd and 1 at the Michigan 48 into 3rd and 16 at their own 33 (Michigan wouldn’t convert and had to punt) and the inexcusable 5 yard delay of game penalty late int he 4th quarter that forced Michigan out of field goal range and gave PSU a chance to tie the game (which they did).  Michigan also committed another false start that pushed a 42 yard field goal to a 47 yarder (they still made it) and turned a 3rd and 10 into 3rd and 15 in the 4th overtime (they only gained 7 yards and settled for a FG).  In short, it felt like the players and the coaches had a lack of composure in key situations – not a good look when you’re trying to win on the road. But once again, it really all does come down to turnovers.  Two interceptions deep in our own territory gave PSU 14 points, which turns this from a comfortable victory into an overtime loss.  Not the first time we’ve seen this story this year, even though it was our first loss.
  • Clock Management – If you’ve read this blog before you know that clock management is not Brady Hoke’s strong suit.  On Saturday, it reared its ugly head again.  With Michigan holding a 7 point lead and the ball at the PSU 30 yard line, Michigan failed to get a play in on time for 3rd Down and instead of using a timeout, they took the five yard delay of game penalty which pushed them out of field goal range.  They were forced to punt, and Penn State was able to score a tying touchdown.  But it gets worse.  After Penn State got the ball down to the Michigan 1 yard line with about 30 seconds remaining, Michigan chose to use its final timeout.  Instead of saving it for a last ditch effort to score after Penn State scored, we gave it away.  That timeout would’ve come in very handy when Michigan moved the ball to the PSU 40 yard line with 13 seconds left.  Especially considering that we moved it up another 5 yards on the next play but then were forced to kick the field goal from 52 yards because we couldn’t guarantee we’d stop the clock again.  On Monday Hoke admitted the botched timeout prior to the delay of game penalty was his fault – hopefully it was a wakeup call for him that he needs to manage this part of the game better.
  • Game Philosophy – Perhaps the most confusing and maddening part of Saturday’s loss for me was the playcalling and in game strategy, both on offense and defense.  It starts with the decision not to throw the ball at all or run any type of complicated play once we picked up the first down with 3 minutes to go.  We were perfectly content to bleed the clock and either kick a field goal or more likely, play for the punt – which we did.  We were playing the percentages that Penn State couldn’t drive 80 yards in under a minute (we were wrong).  What I don’t understand is how after they scored and we got the ball at our own 34 yard line with no timeout and 21 seconds remaining we came out throwing to try and score points.  The percentages there say that you down the ball and play for overtime.  How can Borges and Hoke trust Gardner and the offense in that situation, but are unwilling to let them go for the dagger with 3 minutes to go and only a single first down separating Michigan from a victory?  But they didn’t stop there!  In overtime, we went back to playing the percentages after the PSU missed field goal and turnover.  Our plan was to not do anything that could cause a turnover and set Gibbons up for a field goal.  Again, this is not a bad strategy per se, but not one that jives with trying to score with 21 seconds left.  I also question if playing in this manner adequately reinforces the “toughness” mantra that Hoke preaches.  Punching it in for a touchdown and leaving no doubt is tough football.  This was not.  Defensively, I was also confused by our strategy, as we seemed to be happy to play aggressive and attack a freshman QB while we were trailing, but the moment we got the lead we retreated into a conservative bend but don’t break defense.  I understand that’s the safe move, but when one philosophy has proven to work for 4 or 5 straight possessions, why revert back to the strategy that has produced worse results just because it is safer?  In short, I’d ask for a little more consistency from our coordinators and our head coach.  Either we’re a tough team that goes for the jugular, or we’re a team that plays the percentages.  But we need to choose an identity.
  • The Offensive Line – So here we are six games through the season, and we still have no idea what to make of this offensive line except that are probably the worst line I’ve ever seen as a Michigan fan.  To be fair, there are several contributing factors to this including youth, injury, inexperience, and coaching/scheme. What’s apparent to all is that something has to change.  I actually don’t think its a lack of talent that is hindering this unit, but rather a lack of certainty and chemistry.  It’s clear by now that we aren’t capable of playing the manball that Hoke wants us to be able to and that’s mostly because of the offensive line problems.  From what I can tell on the tape, most times we just aren’t blocking the right guy.  I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that week to week, Al Borges is focusing on finding the weakness in the opposing teams defense and scheming towards that.  This affects the receivers and QBs as well, but they seem to be able to adapt better.  Instead of imposing our will on the defense, we’re targeting their deficiencies and exposing them.  That’s fine week to week, but it hasn’t allowed the offense, especially the offensive line, develop any cohesion. It looks like everyone (for the most part) is starting fresh each week – and that’s not a good thing.  Moving back to the individual players themselves, the two problems I see are that we still haven’t found a left guard, and our right guard (Kyle Kalis), while promising, still isn’t there yet.  I think if you’re Brady Hoke, you have to get through Indiana any way you can, and then try and regroup again during the bye week.  Maybe by then someone will emerge or we’ll find enough improvement in the offensive line to see some improvement.

PS I LOVE U – Penn State Preview

October 12, 2013

Penn State Image    vs       Block M Michigan

2013 marks the 20th Anniversary of Penn State joining the Big Ten Conference and will be the 17th meeting between Michigan and the Nittany Lions.  Michigan holds a 10-6 advantage in the series which looked a lot more impressive prior to 2008 and three straight losses for Michigan.  Prior to that, Michigan’s dominance of Penn State was impressive, winning 9 in a row from 1997 – 2007 and 10 of 13 overall.  Even John Cooper wondered why JoePa couldn’t beat Michigan.  What has made the series even more fun is the way Michigan has beaten Penn State.  From crushing last minute wins and overtime victories to unexpected blowouts between highly ranked teams, to come from behind victories, Michigan has managed to ruin many a weekend in Happy Valley.

I’ll get to the preview in a moment, but in honor of the Nittany Lions 20th Anniversary in the Big Ten, I wanted to share my Top 5 games between Michigan and Penn State.

1993 – In the first matchup ever, a 3-2 Michigan squad welcomed an unbeaten a 7th ranked Penn State to the Big Ten with a late goal line stand and an 8 point victory in Happy Valley.   JoePa probably should’ve realized right then that this Michigan game was going to be a problem.

1999 – A Michigan team led by a guy named Tom Brady scored two 4th quarter touchdown to erase a 27-17 deficit and hand 6th ranked Penn State its 2nd loss of the season.   Don’t feel too bad Penn State – that Michigan team was 9 points from going unbeaten and playing for the national championship.

1998 – A top 10 ranked Penn State team came to Ann Arbor to avenge a 26 point loss in 1997, and was promptly shut out by a stingy Michigan defense in a 27-0 shellacking.   I distinctly remember being shocked myself by our domination.   This game was so embarrassing, Penn State has scrubbed the internet of all video evidence (they are good at that sort of thing apparently). 

2005 – An average Michigan team (3-3) went blow for blow with an undefeated Penn State team and looked like they were going to suffer their 4th loss after giving up a late touchdown.  Then this happened:

“Touchdown Manningham” is still one of my favorite calls.  Especially since it kept PSU from an unbeaten season and playing for the national title.

1997 – This game, hailed as part of “Judgment Day” on ABC pitted unbeaten and #4 ranked Michigan against unbeaten and #2 ranked Penn State.  The only problem is that Penn State never got the memo about this being a clash of titans.  Glen Steele sacked PSU QB on the first series and Michigan never looked back, throttling PSU 34-8.  This game vaulted Michigan into #1 in both the polls, a position they held until the coaches gave Tom Osborne a retirement present.

Ahh….good times.  Given what the last two years have brought to Happy Valley, last second losses and 20+ point losses look a lot better than what they’ve dealt with, including last week’s loss to Big Ten bottom feeder Indiana.  

Which brings us to Saturday’s game – the 17th meeting between these two schools.  Penn State comes in limping off of the aforementioned loss to Indiana.  With just a 3-2 record and the signature win coming over Syracuse by 6 points, Penn State is starting to feel some of the crunch of the scholarship limitations implemented by the NCAA.    Michigan on the other hand comes in at 5-0 with a solid 29 point win over Minnesota to counterbalance the lackluster wins over UConn and Akron earlier in the year.  

Matchups to Watch Out For

Devin Gardner vs. Hostile Road Environment

Outside of the Horseshoe in Columbus, there is probably no venue more difficult for an opposing quarterback in the Big Ten than Happy Valley.  Throw in a presumed “white out”, a late start, and this being the best home game for Penn State this year and you can expect a well lubricated and rowdy Penn State crowd.  Gardner has struggled on the road at times and still hasn’t seemed to have found his mojo since the 2nd half of the Notre Dame game.  A multiple turnover game by him is Penn State’s best chance to stay with Michigan and win this game.  As I noted in this week’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly – Michigan doesn’t need Gardner to be spectacular to win most games, he just needs to be efficient and error free.  This is one of those games.  If he can get comfortable early, I like Michigan’s chances. 

Freshman QB vs. Greg Mattison

Penn State starts a true freshman – Christian Hackenberg – at quarterback.  Hackenberg has an excellent arm and hasn’t looked to bad for a freshman – but he is still a freshman.  Like Gardner, it will be interesting to see how he handles the big game environment.  I expect Mattison to continue his strategy of forcing a young QB to be successful over and over again on short plays in order to create points and it will be interesting to see if Hackenberg is up to the challenge.  That being said, as we’re almost halfway through the season and the defense seems to be finding its way, don’t be surprised if Mattison throws a wrinkle or two in that confuses the young QB and creates some turnovers or sacks.  

Allen Robinson vs. Michigan Secondary

If there is one elite player for Penn State at any position, its wide receiver Allen Robinson, who is on pace for a ridiculous 91 catches and 1500 yards receiving through the first 5 games.  Robinson has great speed and is Hackenberg’s favorite target by a long shot.  If Michigan gives up a big play, in all likelihood it will be to Robinson.  Michigan can’t let him get behind them or they’ll never catch him. 

Jake Ryan vs. The Bench

As of Friday afternoon it was announced that Jake Ryan will travel to State College and will dress for the game.  How much he will be used remains to be seen, but if Michigan is willing to use up one of the very limited travel spots on him, my guess is he’ll see the field – perhaps even a decent amount.  It will be interesting to see how much Michigan uses him, and when they do how they use him.  Michigan needs a game changer in the front 7 and Ryan is clearly that guy.  If he’s even close to 80% recovered from his torn ACL, he could be the difference maker that allows Michigan to go from a very good defense to championship caliber.   I’m looking forward to seeing what he adds. 

Three Useless Predictions

  1. Fitz Toussaint has a good game, but we walk away from this game talking about another back.  I think this is the week that Derrick Green finally gets going.  It won’t be a breakout performance, but it will remind folks why he was a 5 star coming out of high school in the first half. 
  2. Devin Gardner will revert to his old self in both a good and bad way this week.  The turnover streak gets started anew unfortunately, but I also think we’ll see Gardner with a little more swagger which results in some bigger runs and some “did you see that?” plays. 
  3. Jake Ryan sees more of the field than most expect, and ends up with at least 1 tackle for a loss. 

Game Prediction 

If you couldn’t tell from above, playing a late game against Penn State in Happy Valley always makes me nervous.  They have one of the best home field advantages in the country.  That being said, this team is not that good and will need a couple of big plays and big errors from Michigan to pull this out.  

I think Michigan’s run defense will slow down Penn State’s rushing attack forcing true frosh Hackenberg to throw the ball a lot.  Unless you’ve got Chad Henne throwing to Braylon Edwards, that rarely works out well for the team with the freshman quarterback.  The other thing we haven’t even mentioned is Michigan’s nightmare matchup – the Funchise Devin Funchess.  Last week we saw how tough he was at wide receiver, and though Penn State has tape on that now, I think Michigan keeps going to it until an opponent knows how to stop it. I don’t think Penn State is that opponent.  

So to recap – I’m predicting a big game from Gardner and Funchess, but with a couple of “oh no” moments from Gardner thrown in.  I also think our defense continues to slowly strangle opposing offenses.  If this were a home game, I think Michigan wins by 20 points easily.  It’s not though, which means a Michigan victory that may even look comfortable by the end, but will also look uncomfortable at times. 

Michigan 28

Penn State 17 

The Road to Indianapolis – Week #2

October 10, 2013

BTN Trophy

 

LEADERS DIVISION

Ohio State 6-0 (2-0) – The Buckeyes won a hard fought victory over Northwestern on Saturday night, and in doing so virtually assured themselves a spot in the Big Ten Title game.  It seems ridiculous to say just two weeks into the Big Ten season, but with the Buckeyes holding the tiebreaker over Wisconsin by virtue of their victory over them and the rest of the division looking more like MAC teams than Big Ten teams, its a fair statement.  If Ohio State were to drop a surprise game along the way to a team they are clearly better than and then lose to Michigan, Wisconsin would still need to run the table the rest of the way to overtake the Buckeyes. Barring something very strange, you can already pencil in Ohio State for Indianapolis.

Wisconsin 3-2 (1-1) – Wisconsin didn’t play on Saturday but likely spent the evening rooting for Northwestern.  Sadly the Wildcats couldn’t close out the game and now Wisconsin needs a surprise or two in the Big Ten season to displace the Buckeyes from the top of the Leaders Division.   Plus, they have to take care of their own business, starting with Northwestern this weekend.

Indiana 3-2 (1-1) – Given Indiana’s surprising win over Penn State, I’m not obligated to include them as potential “contender” in the Leaders Division.  Technically they could beat OSU and manage to finish ahead of them in the standings even with some losses elsewhere, but that is highly unlikely.  This would constitute the “very strange” scenario I outlined above.  But kudos to the Hoosier on the win.

Illinois, Purdue, Penn State – Illinois and Purdue are a combined 4-6 and each already have a Big Ten loss, and Penn State isn’t eligible for Indianapolis.  I’m already burying Purdue, and it will take a win in two weeks against Wisconsin by Illinois for me to mention them here again.

THE PICK FOR INDY – At this point its ridiculous to pick anyone other than Ohio State.  They are the best team and already have gotten past two of their biggest tests.  I expect them to have the division wrapped by before Thanksgiving.

LEGENDS DIVISION

Michigan 5-0 (1-0) – The Wolverines rebounded nicely from two sub-par performances against Akron and UConn to take care of Minnesota easily.  They once again looked like a Big Ten contender and technically sit atop the Legends standings though MSU and Nebraska are also 1-0.  Michigan will get a test this week against Penn State who is coming off a surprisingly loss at bottom feeder Indiana.  A win by the Wolverines should set them up to be undefeated when they head to East Lansing the first weekend in November.

Michigan State 4-1 (1-0) – The Spartans looked as good as they have all year with a convincing and at time dominating win at Iowa, a notoriously tough place to play.  This was a game the Spartans had to have in order to be a Big Ten contender, and they did so with some swagger.  With Indiana and Purdue at home followed by a trip to Illinois, it would be a surprise if the Spartans didn’t head into November 4-0 in the conference.

Nebraska 4-1 (1-0) – Despite the turmoil that plagued Nebraska in the non-conference schedule, they looked very good at home against Illinois, even without Taylor Martinez, and coasted to a 39-19 win.  Nebraska now has two very winnable games against Purdue and Minnesota before taking on Northwestern and traveling to Michigan.  We won’t know more about the Huskers until those two games, but for now they are right in the thick of things.

Iowa 4-2 (1-1) – If Iowa was going to be a contender in the conference race, they couldn’t afford to lose to MSU at home.  With road trips to Ohio State and Nebraska still looming, plus Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin still on the schedule, the road to Indy has some major roadblocks.  My prediction is that Iowa will effectively be eliminated in two weeks when they suffer their 2nd conference loss to OSU.

Northwestern 4-1 (0-1) – Speaking of devastating losses, the Wildcats home loss to Ohio State really put them behind the 8 ball in the division race.  They still get Michigan and MSU at home, but will likely need to beat both or steal a road win at Wisconsin or Nebraska to keep pace.  The winner of the division will likely have two losses, so all is not lost, but the Wildcats better rebound quickly this weekend against Wisconsin.  A loss there basically ensures they have to run the table the rest of the way. Minnesota – With it’s second straight conference loss, this is the last we’ll be hearing about the Gophers in this space, until they pull a surprising upset – which I think they will.

THE PICK FOR INDY – I’ll still call it a 5 team race for the title for now, but in the end I expect it to be one of Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern or Nebraska.  I still don’t believe in MSU’s offense enough to pick them, though I’m tempted and I need to see one more complete game from Michigan to jump on their bandwagon.  Northwestern already trails by a game, even if they are the most complete team. So for now, I’ll say Nebraska ends up in Indianapolis, but that is hardly a confident pick.

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – Minnesota

October 8, 2013

Devin Funchess

THE GOOD 

  • Sugar Free Devin Gardner Kool-Aid – Prior to Saturday we had seen two different Devin Gardner’s this season.  The first wore a cape and tights and led us to impressive victories over CMU and Notre Dame.  The second looked like he had kryptonite in his shoulder pads and threw the ball to the opponent more than he did his own receivers.  The one thing they both had in common was that their performance directly impacted how Michigan as a whole looked.  Saturday we saw a different Gardner and frankly the one I’ve been looking for.  On Saturday Gardner was more of a game manager who didn’t look to take the entire offense on his back and carry them.  This allowed him to enjoy his first turnover free game as a starter, complete 76% of his passes, and still contribute 250 yards of offense and two touchdowns.  Maybe this game won’t get him on any Heisman lists, but for Michigan it will help them win the Big Ten.  And Gardner still had 4-5 plays during the game where his talent and physical abilities were necessary to help move the chains or score a touchdown – which is exactly what his strength should be.  Unlike Denard, whose talent and skillset required us to maximize him on almost every play, Gardner can be the backbreaker who puts together the highlight play out of nowhere to help put teams away.  I like this version of DG much better. 
  • The Funchise – If you had asked me last week whether or not it made sense to move Devin Funchess to wide receiver I would’ve opined that while there is value in that, he’s a bigger mismatch at tight end where he can’t be covered by linebackers and he gives us a different dimension across the middle in the passing game.  Clearly I’m an idiot.  Funchess finished with 7 receptions for 151 yards and a touchdown, and was easily our offensive MVP for the game.  He was a matchup nightmare for safeties and cornerbacks given his size, and his speed held up well against them as well.  Kudos to Al Borges for having the guts to move him.  As a side note, the emergence of freshman Jake Butt and the return to health of AJ Williams and Jordan Paskorz gave us the flexibility to flex Devin out at wide receiver.  Funchess won’t have this much success in the future as teams will be prepared to scheme against it, but the upside of that is that it should once again open up more opportunities for Jeremy Gallon too.  I expect Funchess to continue to line up at both WR and TE, which will be a nightmare for defenses to prepare for.
  • Taylor Lewan Extreme Right Tackle – As you may have noticed, on Saturday Michigan tried a different alignment a couple of times, lining Taylor Lewan up at tight end, outside the right tackle.  I prefer to call this position extreme right tackle.  I loved this for two reasons.  First, it’s a ton of fun to see a tiny linebacker or safety just move out of the way when Taylor approaches them rather than get steamrolled.  Second, it was a great bye week adjustment by the coaches who were sick and tired of teams stacking the box with 9 guys and forcing us to run into it or check into a pass.  The reason it works so well is because even against a 9 man front it forces the defense to overcompensate to one side, which eventually will allow us to exploit the side that they undercover, with a bootleg or misdirection.  And in the meantime, it opened some nice holes on the ground.  
  • Ground Game – Speaking of the run game, though it wasn’t a vintage Michigan performance, there were some positive signs.  Twice during the game Michigan had drives where they exclusively ran the ball out of the I formation and drove the field for touchdowns. That is something that probably hasn’t happened in 6 seasons.  Though there were still some missed blocks and missed running lanes, the line as a whole looked better, as did the running backs.  I’ll take 4.6 yards per carry from Fitz Toussaint all day long.  I also thought that even though his stats weren’t great, the ability to get Derrick Green 10 carries was helpful to both balance Toussaint’s workload and to show a different look to the defense.  Green looked great on one first half run, though was rather “meh” the rest of the day.  
  • Efficient Consistent Offense – Though many fans and critics still have reservations about the offense, I’m starting to think we may just have unrealistic expectations.  Here are the stats from Saturday.  8 drives, 5 touchdowns, 5 for 5 from inside the red zone, no turnovers, 6.6 yards per play, and three 2nd half drives of 75, 75, and 69 – all resulting in touchdowns.  Of course Minnesota isn’t a great defense, but we moved the ball effectively and did it in a lot of different ways.  It certainly wasn’t a Point a Minute offense, but we’ll win a lot of games if we can continue this kind of output. 
  • Consistent Defense – Like the offense, I think a lot of people are asking a little too much of the defense and are focusing on individual portions of the game instead of looking at the big picture.  Yes that 16 play, 75 yard touchdown drive by Minnesota was painful to watch.  But outside of that Minnesota gained 206 total yards and didn’t sniff the end zone again on their way to only 6 more points.  The defense forced two turnovers, and never really felt threatened.  Plus, Minnesota’s longest play from scrimmage was only 18 yards.  Again, it wasn’t a dominant shutdown defensive effort, but it was consistent and efficient, and meshed nicely with what the offense did.  

THE BAD 

  • Tackling – Though the defense only allowed 13 points, we still aren’t tackling as well as we need to be.  Guys continue to fall forward for extra yards, and we regularly saw what should’ve been stops for no gains turn into 3 or 4 yard pickups.  That goes a long way to helping opponent continue drives, especially when it happens on 3rd down (which I’ll get to in a moment).  I still see a lot of arm tackling, and a lot of guys looking for the knockout hit rather than the sure tackle.  We actually seem to do a better job bringing down guys in space, but struggle in traffic.  Regardless, a great defense protects every yard and every inch, and as of yet we haven’t been able to do that.  
  • 3rd Down Conversions – For a period of about 17 minutes of game time during the 1st and 2nd quarters, Minnesota possessed the ball for 15 minutes of those approximately 17 minutes.  They ran 25 plays to our 3, and scored their lone touchdown.  They were also a painful 7 for 7 on 3rd down conversions before we mercifully stopped them on a 3rd and 9.   For the game they finished 8 of 15, so we clearly got better as the game wore on.  That being said – this is an area we have to get better at.  With 5 chances to stop the Gophers on their touchdown drive, we couldn’t get one stop.  Against a good opponent, that won’t just happen for one drive, it will happen for several and we’ll find ourselves on the Win/Loss column.  I’m hopeful that as Jake Ryan improves, so will this area.    
  • Football Gods who hate Michigan ACL’s – In the last 2 years, Michigan has lost six(!) players to ACL injuries.  Those six are Jake Ryan, Blake Countess, Russell Bellomy, Drake Johnson, Chris Wormley, and as of Saturday afternoon DT Ondre Pipkins.  The loss of Pipkins is significant, but not devastating.  Pipkins was starting to come on and live up to his recruiting ranking, but he wasn’t even a fulltime starter yet with Quinton Washington and Jibreel Black playing over him.  However, his loss does reduce some depth and much-needed development for him.  Willie Henry will likely get the majority of the snaps that would’ve been Pipkins had he stayed healthy.  On a macro level….what the hell is going on with our ACL’s?  That just seems like a lot of guys to go down with is a somewhat rare injury.  I hope Michigan as a program is examining if there is any connection. 

THE UGLY 

  • The Drive – When you win by 29 points, even against lowly Minnesota, its tough to find fault.  The one thing that seems to have made everyone uncomfortable though was the Gophers  aforementioned 16 play, 75 yard touchdown drive that chewed up almost 10 minutes of game clock and set the tone for the first half.  In short, it was an ugly drive for our defense, as they were nickel and dimed down the field, and though they had 5 chances to get off the field on 3rd down, were unable to.  They also were unable to get a stop on 3rd and Goal from the 7, allowing a touchdown pass.  If that pass gets broken up and the Gophers settle for a field goal, we all feel a lot better about it.  Further, if we stop either of the Gopher’s 3rd and 1 rushes for no gain or a loss, as we’ve seemed to do so many times in the past, we all feel a lot better about this.  The good news is that it didn’t happen again.  The bad news is that it further demonstrated that while we are a good defense, we are not yet a dominant defense.