Sunday, November 06, 2011

Why am I surprised when it happens every time?

In 2003, probably the the most talented Michigan team of my lifetime* went to Iowa and lost in such wildly infuriating fashion that I've blocked everything from my memory other than "arrghgh 2003." In 2009, an apparently much-improved Michigan team went to Iowa for the first time in four years with a 5-1 record and still-existent hopes of awesomeness before this happened:

Pain. So much pain.

The only game I can really remember in which Michigan played at Iowa and did something other than rip my heart out was 2005, when Michigan won in overtime and went on to finish 7-5 (woo). That game obviously meant nothing since a loss would've just led to a little additional head shaking and a slightly crappier bowl game.

I always tell myself "Iowa isn't really that good," and regardless of whether it's true or not, a Michigan trip to Iowa = me getting stabby due to a fury-induced aneurysm. The pink locker rooms are of no help to me.
. . . . .

So that happened. Again. Clearly, the identity of Michigan's coach has no bearing on whether or not a visit to Kinnick Stadium will end with him spewing profanity into the powerless and corn-particle-filled ether.

Also irrelevant: Iowa actually being good. The fact that Iowa lost to Minnesota the week before cannot be overstated (and no, it doesn't matter that Minnesota seems to be slightly less awful than at the beginning of Big Ten play). Iowa also needed a miraculous comeback to beat Pitt at home and lost to an extremely mediocre Iowa State team. According to the advanced metrics, Iowa is basically Purdue, a.k.a. not very good.

My brain wants to know what that says about Michigan. I will now tell my brain to shut up.

It wasn't pretty. Michigan gained 323 total yards against a team that gave up 378 to Minnesota, 414 to Indiana, 473 to Iowa State, 395 to Penn State and 352 to Louisiana Monroe (guh). I could start anywhere; I'll start with this guy:

Denard Robinson is not a very good passer. He can be effective as a passer because his legs cause defenses to do things like this ...

... and leave receivers hilariously wide open for easy touchdowns, but he's not very good when tasked with dropping back and throwing it to guys 15-30 yards downfield who have defenders in their general vicinities.

There's an obvious solution: Don't do that. Seriously. I watched Denard go for 2,500 and 1,800 last year despite having little to no idea what to do in the passing game; he was a spectacularly awesome QB because the offense (a) was simple and (b) minimized obvious weaknesses. Give him a blocker and he can do some fun stuff on the ground. Pretend to give him a blocker and he can throw to receivers who have 15 yards of separation. Times were good.

Saturday was not so good. One of the unending themes of Brady Hoke's tenure has been "saving" Denard via not giving him 25 carries against everybody on the schedule. That sounds swell as long as it works -- like when Fitzgerald Toussaint is running for 170 yards against Purdue -- but when the running backs are averaging 3.5 yards a carry and every pass is terrifying because the odds of a completion and interception are roughly equal, what are you saving him for?!? It does no good for Denard to stay healthy so he can go 17 of 37 while getting 12 carries, about a third of which came on incredibly surprising jet sweeps. That's awful game management. Accept that your best running back is your quarterback (and your best pass play is anything with the threat of Denard as a runner) and adjust your playcalling accordingly.

A few weeks ago -- after the Minnesota game, specifically -- I felt pretty good about Al Borges figuring out what Denard could and couldn't do. I felt a little less good after Michigan State. After whatever it was that happened against Iowa, I have no confidence in anything related to Michigan's offense. That's partially on Borges and partially on being stuck in between two systems without any obvious identity or base play. It's hard to be consistent when the gameplan each week is a totally unpredictable mix of shotgun/under-center stuff, a little Toussaint, a little Vincent Smith, a little zone read, a throwback screen or two, etc. As of right now, I have no idea going into any given game whether the offense will be spectacular, terrible or anything in between. Borges' ability to get rid of the terrible and maximize the spectacular will be the determining factor in whether Michigan ends up going 7-5 and forcing me to pad my walls or going 10-2 and causing me to immediately start submitting Fiesta Bowl credential requests.

So ... I think that covers my complaints about the offense. On to the officiating? On to the officiating!

Great googly moogly ... I mean ... ARGHGH. This is a touchdown:

Knee down? Check. Keeping control of the ball (which does not mean the ball can't touch the ground) throughout the catch? Check. Touchdown. Brady Hoke's reaction is entirely appropriate.

Also, this is blatant pass interference:

There was also an even blatant-er pass interference that led to a pick at the end of the first half when Michigan was inside the Iowa 10, but I can't find a decent replay of that one.

In summary:

Insert standard stuff here about "shouldn't have been in that situation" and "can't rely on the officials to bail you out" and blah blah blah. Still, it's so freakin' frustrating to see a touchdown taken off the board and two obvious touchdown-negating penalties ignored in a game that results in a one-touchdown loss. I don't think that requires much more explanation.

Speaking of a one-touchdown loss, my ever-growing faith in Brady Hoke's understanding of situation-appropriate aggressiveness was shaken a little when he went for the extra point with seven minutes left and a nine-point deficit. I realize just about every coach takes the extra point there to make it a "one-score game," but here's the thing: At some point, you have to get a two-point conversion. The sooner you know if you've got the two points, the better. If Michigan had scored on the final play and then not gotten the conversion, there'd have been no time to adjust for that miss. The game's over. If you miss earlier, you can adjust your strategy in the final minutes knowing that you need two scores. Not going for it as early as possible (in the fourth quarter, anyway) is just delaying the inevitable to maintain the illusion of a one-score game when in reality you need one score and a conversion.

All in all, I'm still pleased with Hoke's decision-making this year (things like not punting from the other team's 36 are delightful), but that one irked me a little bit. I also noticed that he put a headset on with about three minutes left Saturday, which was kinda odd since I don't think he's worn a headset at any other point this season, even at the end of the Notre Dame game. Not sure what that was about. His shell also cracked a little bit at halftime when he said something to the effect of "We tried to throw it in there and thought we should've got a flag." That's the Hokespeak equivalent of "REFS Y U NO CALL GOOD?!?" from a guy who responds to even the most benign questions with stuff like, "Well, ya know, we're just a long way from where Michigan football needs to be." BTW, I'm pretty sure he's right about both of those things.

As for "where Michigan football needs to be" ... ummm ... better than 7-5 would be nice. I think the thing that really pissed me off about the Iowa game (besides the obvious end-of-game debacle) was the fact that of the final four games, that was the one I felt the most confident about. The last three games -- at Illinois, Nebraska and Ohio State -- all worried me at least a little more than the one against the team coming off a loss to Minnesota. Losing to Iowa means an 0-4 finish is now a real possibility, and I don't even wanna think about that scenario and what it means regarding Michigan's legitimacy or lack thereof (not that 0-3 wouldn't have been a possibility after a win over Iowa, but at least 8-4 would've been the worst-case scenario). Basically, when you're about to flip a coin four times and are desperately hoping for four straight heads, seeing the first one come up tails is pretty terrifying.

All of the last three games are both totally winnable and totally losable; saying I have any idea whether 3-0 or 0-3 is more likely would be a lie. I'd love some tangible evidence that Michigan is better this year, preferably in the form of wins over good(-ish) teams, but I'll settle for wins of any type. I'm not that picky anymore. Just win all the games and I'll be happy.

*The '97 team was obviously pretty awesome and had one absurdly dominant player, and the 2000 offense had something like 10 future NFL starters, but that '03 team was soooo good in just about every way and still ended up losing three games. Woo glory days!


Post a Comment

Powered by Blogger.