Sunday, October 16, 2011

Hope can drive a man insane

When Michigan started 6-0 by having an offense almost as good as last year's and a defense about 10,000 percent better, whatever the hypothetical best-case scenario was going into the year got chucked out the window with happy-times laughter. The crater that is Nebraska's defense and the ongoing implosion of Ohio State's football program only helped, as did that little voice in my head that said "going from decent to national champion can't be that impossible since it happens about every other year."

Hope? Yeah, I had it, even if only in that portion of my consciousness I refuse to acknowledge because of its ridiculousness. Ya never know, right?
. . . . .

AAAARRRGHGHGH. That pretty much sums it up.

I'm trying to decide which part was the most frustrating:
  • Losing to Sparty for the fourth straight time (guh), which means the seniors went 0 for their careers.
  • The half-dozen cheapshots, most of which were courtesy of a guy who (by rule) should've been kicked out of the game on three separate occasions for intent to injure.
  • The complete offensive ineptitude after the first drive of the game.
  • The "WTF!?!?!?" fourth-and-1 play-action call when Michigan was 8 yards away from tying it at 21-all in the fourth quarter.
I'll go with "all of the above." The cumulative result was one of the top five-ish most frustrating games I can remember (keep in mind that expectations were significantly lowered for the entire RichRod era). Losing by a couple touchdowns would've been sufficiently irritating on its own, but the real kick to the gut was that Michigan came back just enough in the last 10 minutes to give everybody hope and then took it away in rage-inducing fashion. I repeat: AAAARRRGHGHGH.

Denard Robinson's line was as follows: 9 for 24 for 123 yards with one touchdown and one pick. And yes, he was that bad. He's had stretches like that before -- like the first half against Northwestern -- but not whole games. It was awful*. And the mainstream-media reaction has been thoroughly predictable: Denard's not a quarterback and Michigan can't win with him playing. This is so dumb that I don't even know how to respond, so I'm just gonna say "oh yeah, it's Drew Sharp" and write it off to Drew Sharp's idiocy.

They actually tried giving redshirt freshman Devin Gardner (a Vince Young clone) a few snaps to get something going, but that didn't go much better: He was 3 for 7, and that doesn't include the ball he threw when he was five yards past the line of scrimmage or the fourth-and-22 play on the final drive that saw him scramble past the line of scrimmage, run around backwards and then try to throw before taking a sack. He looks good physically but isn't close to being ready, which isn't surprising. He's thrown 24 career passes.

This is and should be Denard's offense in every way. He's still one of the most dangerous players in the country with the ball in his hands, and it was only a week ago that he threw three awful interceptions and still put up a passer rating of just under 180 by shredding Northwestern on every throw that didn't go directly to a defensive back. It's not as simple as "put nine in the box on every play and you beat Michigan." Michigan State did that, succeeded in holding the running game in check and won because Denard had the worst passing game of his career; Northwestern did the same thing, succeeded in holding the running game in check and lost by three TDs because Michigan put up 42 points and 337 passing yards.

I've known all season that Michigan winning against good teams depended significantly on Denard being competent enough in the passing game to make defenses pay for selling out up front. He doesn't do it consistently, but he doesn't have to when the inconsistent successes are 60-yard touchdowns a couple times a game and he still goes for 140 yards and a TD on the ground every week. On Saturday, he didn't do it at all ... but I don't think that'll happen very often. I'm not willing to ignore a season and a half worth of evidence in favor of one terrible game and say, "yup, time to blow it all up."

The playcalling has been treated to a similar fisking on the interwebz, but outside of one glaringly obvious Hindenburg-level disaster (which I'll get to momentarily), I don't have any major criticisms. With nine men in the box on literally every play, the running game is gonna be limited. There were a lot of first-down zone reads and QB leads in the first half that went for about two yards, and second-and-8 isn't a position you wanna be in a whole lot. You have to take what the defense is giving you, and on Saturday, that was the passing game, especially with MSU selling out to get pressure and leaving the middle of the field wiiiide open for the taking. Receivers were running free all day, and Denard just couldn't hit them. That's not on Al Borges. Obvious caveat: I'm not a six-figure-salary offensive coordinator, so maybe there were some better underneath route combinations or tunnel screens or something that could've gotten Denard in a rhythm and helped offset the MSU pressure.

And then there was the play that nearly broke the "F" key on my phone. Flashback: Michigan scores on a one-play drive to cut the deficit to 21-14, recovers a fumble on the ensuing play and then drives to Michigan State's 8-yard line with about 7 minutes left. It's fourth-and-inches. Prior to this point, Michigan hadn't been stopped on a fourth-and-short running play all year (I believe the number was 5 for 5, but I can't find the stats to confirm). They line up in the I-form, motion the fullback out wide to the left and then -- instead of a cash-money QB lead out of the shotgun or a standard sneak or whatever -- go play-action ... and Denard gets killed on a corner blitz. Game basically over. Reaction:


That one hurt. A lot. Michigan's next play from scrimmage was a pick-six that officially put the game out of reach, although it shouldn't have since the safety blatantly taunted the Michigan pursuit guy (I think it was Denard) at about the 5-yard line. All that stuff about mid-play celebrations taking points off the board apparently is irrelevant when it matters.

This seems like the appropriate spot for these:

There was also an earlier play (I can't find the video, unfortunately) in which Gholston grabbed Taylor Lewan's arm while they were down and twisted it to the point where it probably should've broken. Classy.

The best part is that Mark Dantonio spent a solid 30 seconds yelling at the refs and then put Gholston right back in the game even while Urban Meyer was saying "he's gone." Oh, and there was a roughing-the-passer call on Marcus Rush at the beginning of Michigan's final drive that knocked Denard out of the game for good. I'm glad Chris Spielman spoke up to support Dantonio (no conflict of interest there, amirite?) and his alleged reputation for "clean, hard-hitting football" -- I almost got confused. This says it all:
"That's what we try to do," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said after Michigan State's 28-14 win against Michigan. "Sixty minutes of unnecessary roughness. I'm just happy it didn't get called on every snap."
Yep. Losing to that team is awesome.

So ... after a bye week and what should be an easy win at home against Purdue to get to 7-1, there are four games -- at Iowa, at Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio State -- that will determine exactly what Michigan is gonna be this year. I still have little to no doubt that when Denard is on in the passing game, Michigan's offense can't/won't be stopped enough to result in a loss to anybody except maybe Nebraska, but seeing him implode once obviously puts a dent massive hole in my confidence that it won't happen again. Whether it will is unknowable.

Because of that, the ceiling has been lowered slightly -- it's now somewhere between the "impossibly magical unbeaten season" notch and wherever it was at the beginning of the year. Ohio State basically can't complete a forward pass, Illinois just lost to a team that can't complete a forward pass, Nebraska's defense is shockingly bad and Iowa's only two wins against teams with a pulse both required huge fourth quarters. I have no idea what the odds are of getting through that stretch; what I know is that they'll live and die by Denard every Saturday. More of the living stuff would be good, plzkthx.

*I wrote on Facebook after the game that it might have been the worst-quarterbacked game in recent Michigan history. Survey says ... it was close. In the 2008 "Badge of Fandom" game against Northwestern that was played in rain/sleet and 30-degree crap, Nick Sheridan went 8 of 29 for 61 yards in a 21-14 loss. That's pretty terrible. Also terrible: In the 2008 Ohio State game, Chad Henne (playing with a partially detached throwing shoulder) and a completely unprepared freshman named Ryan Mallett combined to go 12 for 37 for 76 yards. Counting sacks, they accounted for 50 of Michigan's 91 total yards (guh) in a 14-3 loss. Denard was craptacular Saturday, but at least he produced 14 points and went for 42 yards on the ground.


Post a Comment

Powered by Blogger.