Saturday, January 07, 2012

All good things ...

So I've been trying (unsuccessfully, obviously) to find time to write something about the Sugar Bowl for the past three days. Basically every angle -- both the good and stupid -- has been covered.

I still want/need to write something because ... I mean ... obviously.

I'll start with this: Michigan had no business winning that game. Michigan had no business having a chance to win that game. The offense sucked, the defense couldn't stop a third-and-anything and the total yardage was 2 to 1 in Virginia Tech's favor from beginning to end. It was a statistical domination that ended with the wrong (by a certain standard) team winning.

This bothers me not at all. MGoBlog said it best:
You, cold-eyed realist who gravitates to this place, are going to tell work colleagues who went to universities other than your own that Michigan deserved to win this game in no way whatsoever. And then your shit-eating grin is going to drive them from you.
The shit-eating grin: I has it. I has it bad.

It'd been 11 years since Michigan ended a season by beating Ohio State and then winning a BCS game. That's a long time. That's Drew Henson, John Navarre, Marlin Jackson, Chris Perry, Braylon Edwards, LaMarr Woodley, Chad Henne, Mike Hart, Jake Long, Brandon Graham and countless other guys on legitimately excellent teams, which this one wasn't. This was a pretty good team that wasn't great at anything and finished 11-2. There have been five Michigan teams ever* to win 11 games; this was inexplicably one of them.

Again, I don't care. I watched this ...

... and this ...

... and probably 20 other games that ended with me screaming profanities about a really good Michigan team getting its collective soul crushed in devastating and infuriating fashion.

Law of averages, I guess. 11-2.
. . . . .

I'm not gonna try to make any blanket spin-it-forward assessments since (a) bowl games are weird matchups with long layoffs and a bunch of hard-to-quantify variables and (b) next year's team obviously won't be exactly the same as this year's team. But a couple things were obvious enough that they warrant a paragraph or two.

The offense was OMG AWFUL. Part of that was the matchup: Virginia Tech likes to put eight or nine in the box on every play against everybody, which was more than the O-line could handle and just exacerbated Michigan's lack of a mid-range passing game. In other words, the Sugar Bowl was the Michigan State game with a more fortunate result. Both touchdowns were miraculous circus catches by Junior Hemingway, who's gone next year and doesn't have a duplicate anywhere on the roster.

There's an alternate universe in which that game plays out in almost exactly the same fashion and Michigan loses something like 24-3. I mean, this had no business not being intercepted ...

... and this was just as fortunate ...

... and this (which came after a fumbled kick return and resulted in a field goal) was Yakety Sax-worthy:

Those three plays produced 17 of Michigan's 20 regulation points. So yeah.

A large majority of the organized offseason time will probably be spent on finding some reliable ("throw it up and hope for the best" doesn't qualify) passing-game stuff that Denard can actually execute. I'm pretty sure 56 rushing yards from a Denard-centric offense won't usually be sufficient for a win. It'd also be helpful if Rocko Khoury could snap the ball accurately since he's gonna be the starter next year; David Molk will be missed on the interior even though the rest of the line returns intact.

As for the defense, ARGH STOP A FREAKIN' THIRD-AND-LONG! The secondary got pretty well picked apart by a decent-but-not-great passer and should have been responsible for about 30 points allowed if not for Frank Beamer going into his shell at the stupidest possible times (more on that momentarily). VT insisted on trying to get David Wilson the ball on about two of every three plays, which isn't stupid in and of itself but is when Michigan is blowing stuff up in the backfield on a regular basis and covering nobody. Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen were largely responsible for every red-zone non-touchdown (of which there were four) by destroying the interior of the Virginia Tech offensive line and allowing nothing on the ground all night. Those guys went out in style.

The rest of the defense -- all of it -- comes back, which is good but seemed more promising after 11 games than it does after 13. I'm hoping that the benefits of experience and system stability produce some significant improvement in the back seven; that certainly seems possible but will need to actually happen for the defense as a whole to avoid a regression.

Going back to Beamer and VT's playcalling ... umm ... yikes. Going for it on fourth-and-2 with a 6-0 lead when Michigan was incapable of producing a first down and a nine-point lead would have been situationally ginormous? Mmmkay. A fake punt (or the option for a fake punt) from midfield late in the fourth quarter of a tie game that your defense had totally dominated? Gack. I appreciate these awful decisions but don't understand the thought process behind them given the way the game was playing out. Michigan had no business winning from a run-of-play standpoint; Virginia Tech had no business winning from a game-theory standpoint. The game-theory gods are powerful.

This is where I reiterate that I heart Brady Hoke for spending his formative coaching years in the MAC and Mountain West, two conferences where defense is mostly optional and going for it on fourth-and-anything is almost always the right decision. The fake field goal (and he said after the game that it was a called and semi-busted fake) was Michigan's third this year; the other two resulted in touchdowns against Michigan State and Nebraska. This one didn't result in a touchdown but might have been the difference between zero points (on a fairly lengthy kick) and a guaranteed three on a de facto extra point. Those three points turned out to be kinda big.

On a related note, I said this about two weeks ago:
Va. Tech was 65th in FEI's special-teams rankings this year, and that was with Journell. With a kicker who's never made a field goal, a receiver punting (albeit pretty well at 44 yards a punt) and a nonexistent kick-return game (19.7 yards per return), that number is effectively even lower. Michigan's special teams have crept up from bad to about average (59th in FEI) and might actually be an advantage (!) in the Sugar Bowl unless Va. Tech blocks seven punts.
Word. Crazy stat: Brendan Gibbons was 1 for 5 on field-goal attempts last year and somehow went from that to 13 of 17 this season and absolutely perfect (and clutch) in the last two games. I don't think I can possibly understate how hard it would have been to believe a year ago that the 2011 version of Michigan would win a BCS game in which the kicker was awesome and the offense gained 184 total yards. In summary: Wwwhheeeeeeeee!

Obligatory video:

Of course.

BTW, that was totally not a false start by Gibbons. Nothing to see here. Move along/celebrate/break out the stupidly branded** shirts.

Yeah, like that.
. . . . .

I didn't really want this thing to end. I don't even know how long it's been since I said that about a Michigan season; maybe 2003 ('04 and '06 were fun but ended horrifically). That was different, though, since that team was loaded with seniors and talent and was utterly dominant when things were clicking (except for the disaster that was special teams).

EDSBS said this in passing:
This is not a very good Michigan team, but they are a very good Michigan TEAM.
It was a very good Michigan team because of Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen and David Molk and Kevin Koger and Junior Hemingway, who had to start from scratch and earn all of this the way nobody before them had to. The Ohio State game was about defining a legacy; the Sugar Bowl was about writing an ending.

The end.
. . . . .

*That's obviously skewed since there were only eight or nine regular-season games until the past half-century and only 12 games total until the past decade, but still.

**My 4-year-old thinks "ORANGE YOU GLAD" is hilarious, which pretty much says it all.


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