Sunday, November 25, 2012

A great calamity

When I was 18 and about five months out of high school, I drove from Grand Rapids (where I was in school) to a friend's apartment in Canton for the weekend of The Game. That's about a two-hour drive; with The Game starting at noon Saturday, I drove over Friday afternoon after whatever my last class was, and upon my arrival, we started playing NFL 2K.

It's worth mentioning that I had never played NFL 2K before, and it was a freakin' revelation seeing as how it was about a decade ahead of its time and might have been (and might still be) the greatest football game ever made. So the NFL 2K engorgement lasted somewhere in the range of 12 hours; when it started getting light out, we decided it was probably time to stop and eat and maybe get outside for a few minutes since natural light is a nice thing to absorb every once in a while.

Clearly, there was no sleeping. The Game started. Drew Henson threw a ridiculous touchdown pass to David Terrell and then did it again a few minutes later since Drew Henson was Drew Henson and David Terrell was David Terrell. Julius Curry ran a pick back for a touchdown right about the time I started falling asleep. I don't really remember the end; I just remember that Michigan won in a game that wasn't particularly competitive in the fourth quarter.

I started driving back to Grand Rapids an hour or so later, fell asleep about 20 minutes after that and drove my car into a concrete barrier about five seconds after that. Derp. If you're thinking, "Wow, your time management skills were amazingly awful and stupid," (a) you're right and (b) keep in mind that I was a freshman in college who had just turned 18 and had never previously been away from home for any extended period of time.

So that was, like, a long time ago. That was also the last time Michigan won in Columbus.

It occurred to me at some point either Friday night or Saturday morning (it all kinda runs together now) that every version of The Game played in Columbus since that one (the awfulness of 2008 notwithstanding) has been exactly the same. Seriously. The coaches and records and various awesome players and everything else have been of little significance since there's always a large Ohio State guy running up the middle repeatedly for infuriatingly long distances and a Michigan quarterback having the ball in his hands with a couple minutes left and Michigan losing by some relatively-small-but inevitably-not-overcomeable amount and then AAARRRGHGH. Michigan always loses, except "loses" would not necessarily be the most accurate description of the biannual thing I'm referring to; "has its collective heart ripped out in the most excruciatingly devastating way possible" would be more appropriate.

. . . . .

The AAARRRGHGH part lasts, man. It lasts, especially after sitting there being too devastated to turn off the TV and thus being forced to watch Ohio State celebrate a stupid undefeated season with CheatyPants McSweatervest in the building and getting fellated by 100,000 morans via a standing ovation despite being the sole reason the aforementioned undefeated season didn't even mean anything.

Frustration gives way to anger, and you may lash out and lay unwarranted blame on someone else. Please try to control this, as permanent damage to your relationships may result. This is a time for the release of bottled-up emotion.
You may rail against fate, questioning "Why me?" You may also try to bargain in vain with the powers that be for a way out of your despair.

I tried to tell myself it didn't matter. But it was The Game, man. Of course it mattered. It mattered to me.
It is surely a great calamity for a human being to have no obsessions.
 Depends on the obsessions, Robert Bly.
. . . . .

So ... sigh. That pretty accurately encapsulates the many words that will come next.

Michigan had 21 points and 229 yards at the half and was basically having its way offensively thanks to Devin Gardner continuing to be The Superhuman Devin Gardner and Denard being Denard. Braxton Miller finished with 57 rushing yards at 2.6 a carry. Yay?

Not yay. Michigan had three first downs in the second half, finished with four turnovers, gave up about 6.3 yards a play (kneeldowns excluded) and got a cumulative -14 rushing yards from everybody other than Denard, who had one touch in the last 22 minutes of the game.

The obvious question: HOLY HELL WHAT HAPPENED TO THE OFFENSE? Again, Michigan had 21 points and 229 yards at the half by doing the things pretty much everybody expected: a lot of play-action, almost no actual under-center run plays and an assortment of looks/formations/plays that resulted in Denard getting the ball on the edge. If not for a Gardner fumble on a third-down strip sack on the first possession, Michigan would've had at least 24 points at the half; that's more than all but two teams had scored against Ohio State all year. Basically everything was working except the pass protection, which wasn't good but wasn't terrible. Gardner was only 5 for 10 but had 95 yards and a touchdown and a couple first-down-producing scrambles. Denard had six carries for 126 yards, one of which was this thing that was so, so sweet in so many ways:

Beautiful. I asked last week to see that just one last time; I did. And I had a happy.

So there was success in the form of first downs and points and whatnot. And then there was the second half. Guh. By my count, there was one play featuring Gardner and Denard on the field together in the second half, that a busted screen pass. Michigan had 60 total yards on five drives. There were three third-and-short plays, all of which were I-form handoffs to Vincent Smith or Thomas Rawls that produced a total of zero yards and no first downs. And those results weren't even remotely surprising since (a) Michigan didn't have an under-center running play all game go for more than two yards, (b) Vincent Smith has never in his career converted a third-and-short run play since he weighs 160 pounds and has no YAC ability and (c) Thomas Rawls came into the game averaging barely three yards a carry this year outside of one 60-yard run against Purdue.

Knowing those things ... I mean ... wha???

I can't find video of the play with Rawls; just know that it was essentially the same design and with the same result but on third-and-3 rather than third-and-1. It was also proceeded by Hoke inexplicably going for it (more on that momentarily) on fourth-and-3 from the Michigan 48. The playcall? A Denard iso over left guard that got absolutely nothing, which again was to be expected given the total inability of Michigan's interior line to block anybody.

Why call that instead of the pulling-guys sweep that got Denard a crapload of yards in the first half? No idea. Hoke indicated after the game that it was the same play, but Denard's angle and the blocking clearly indicate otherwise. Why did Denard have one touch in the fourth quarter, that a third-and-1 play that got the same playcall as the fourth-and-3 play and thus got the same result? No idea. Why were Gardner and Denard on the field together basically not at all over the last 30 minutes despite Ohio State's defense making it clear in the first half that Denard couldn't consistently be stopped but would still make everybody freak out? No idea.

For all the good stuff Michigan's passing game has done over the last four weeks, it's pretty hard to ignore some of the head-asplodingly inexplicable playcalls/personnel usages this year in the games in which the offense went through extended stretches of awfulness. The offensive coordinator should be able to, you know, recognize what his offense is good at and what it's terrible at and not call for the latter. Al Borges apparently is capable of doing so but is contractually mandated (or something) to not do so about once a month, hence last year's Michigan State and Iowa games and this year's Notre Dame and Nebraska and Ohio State games.

The thing about Borges is that I'm convinced he's an excellent play designer; Michigan does some pretty creative stuff in the passing game that gets guys open downfield on the regular. I'm also convinced that he's not a particularly good play caller in terms of doing things that play off other things during the course of the game and not being totally predictable with personnel/formation usage. That's a problem and will always be a problem against teams with decent defenses and/or defensive coordinators, thus the line outside Ann Arbor Torch and Pitchfork right now. I really don't know whether firing Borges is the answer; I do know that I again have little confidence that he's a guy capable of running a national-title-worthy offense, and that confidence diminishes a little more with just about every game against a good-ish defense since the same nonsensical things keep happening.

The run game has gotten so bad that it essentially won't even exist once Denard is gone, and that's gonna make the play-action passing game that's arguably his biggest selling point right now incrementally less effective. So I'm concerned. I'm similarly concerned about O-line coach Darrell Funk given the regression over the last couple years despite a line featuring three seniors on the interior and a junior at left tackle who's gonna be a top-15 pick in the draft. It shouldn't be that difficult to execute relatively straightforward assignments on relatively basic running plays, and if Borges is gonna call them, the line has to be able to execute them to some degree or else it's just a waste of a down (and sometimes a possession). There's a disconnect somewhere that will have to be addressed.

BTW, the line's inability to do anything right on the interior is maybe the biggest reason the veer/Denard iso stuff seems so effective: It eliminates the need to actually move large people out of holes by just letting them remove themselves from the play. It's nice that Borges was able/willing to implement something that would do that earlier in the year, but again, the lack of counters to that when Denard was healthy and the lack of any competently designed/executed running plays that required actual blocking after Denard went out collectively yield little hope for next year's running game being anything other than terrible.

Is it worth keeping Borges if it means a below-average running game, an above-average passing game and a collectively average offense going forward that will only score a touchdown in about half of its games against good-ish defenses? I don't know. I guess it depends if there's an obviously preferable and gettable alternative out there. I wish I wasn't debating this with myself right now. At least there's Gardner.

The thing that makes a firing seem more justifiable: Greg Mattison. There are some obvious personnel deficiencies on the D-line and in the secondary, and seeing Mattison take the guys who got trucked by Alabama and turn them into the 12th-ranked total defense and 20th-ranked scoring defense makes the offense's regression even more infuriating. Basically, one guy has taken a bunch of not-very-good or horrifyingly young players and produced literally unbelievable excellence consistently over the last two years; the other guy has taken a bunch of moderately talented players who are now more experienced and produced inconsistent results that have largely gotten worse over that same period of time.

Unfortunately for the defense, Ohio State was able to exploit the not-very-good stuff more regularly than anybody since Alabama. The defensive tackles -- Will Campbell, especially -- were pretty regularly removed three or four yards from the holes they were supposed to be consuming, with the result being 26 carries for 146 yards for north-south truck Carlos Hyde. Braxton Miller rarely got outside and was of little consequence in the run game, which ... uhhh ... OK. I'd have liked Michigan's chances if I'd have known that before the game but didn't envision both the defensive tackles and corners getting eaten alive. Speaking of the corners, Miller (a 58 percent passer coming in) finished 14 for 18 for 189 yards (10.5 an attempt) and a touchdown. The defensive philosophy wasn't significantly different from last year's: Bring Jordan Kovacs down, play a 4-4 up front with Cover 3 behind it and hope the corners don't get destroyed. For the second straight year, the corners basically got destroyed because Miller was far, far more accurate than he had been for the first 11 games of the season. That's one of those tip-of-the-cap things, IMO. If a guy like Miller (or Denard, for that matter) can hit the downfield stuff consistently, there's no way to stop it.

That said, if blame for the loss is getting passed around, the defense shouldn't get a ton of it. Ohio State had one good drive after the first quarter and got six second-half points despite starting three drives in Michigan territory (one of them at the Michigan 8). Going into the half with a lead and then allowing a total of six second-half points should produce a win. I mean, obviously.

It's unfortunate that Campbell couldn't hold up a little better early in the game and/or Thomas Gordon couldn't avoid sucking up on play action and getting torched by Devin Smith on the fourth play of the game; the defense by and large played well enough to win but, as mentioned above, still lacks the talent in a few areas to totally shut down a borderline-elite offense like Ohio State's, especially if Miller is throwing the ball with reasonable accuracy.

I'm still pretty optimistic going forward since the total losses this offseason will be as follows: Kenny Demens (Desmond Morgan will slide over to take his spot at middle linebacker and be replaced by James Ross, an uber athlete who rotated in regularly over the second half of the season), Craig Roh (Brennen Beyer likely will slide over from weakside end to strongside end and be replaced by co-starter type Frank Clark), Will Campbell (either rotational guy Jibreel Black or former megarecruit Ondre Pipkins will ascend from backup to starter), J.T. Floyd (sophomore Blake Countess was already a better cover corner before blowing out his knee in the Alabama game) and Jordan Kovacs (no obvious replacement since Kovacs was Michigan's best tackler and most consistent nothing-gets-past-me safety in forever).

With Kovacs' role probably going to one of three formerly highly touted recruits and becoming slightly less crucial anyway due to the decrease in plays actually getting to the safety level, I'll be surprised if Michigan's defense isn't as good or slightly better next year -- slightly better than top 20 in both yards and points allowed. Greg Mattison FTW.

I mean, this is a big-time play by Frank Clark (a former two-star recruit stolen from nobody):

So is this by Jake Ryan (who's an absolute animal at outside linebacker and is only a sophomore):

Really, there's nothing more optimism-inspiring at this point than Mattison being able to put together a good-to-great defense out of spare parts and three-star recruits, especially with the accompanying knowledge that Michigan's recruiting since Hoke took over has been absolutely ridonkulous. There will be absurd amounts of talent on this team in the next few years. Mattison will do great things with that talent, no question; the offense is much more of a question.

As for Hoke, there's little I've seen yet that's made me thing he's anything other than a good coach (pending some offensive coherence next season and respectable O-line play next year, which should be a priority given the losses the last two years). The fourth-down call was, to me, unnecessarily aggressive considering that Michigan was winning by a point and could've pinned Ohio State back somewhere between the goal line and the 20. That said, with Denard's short-yardage conversion awesomeness and with a 21-20 game in which both teams were moving the ball with some effectiveness, taking a chance that your best player can get a couple yards and maybe get you a pretty significant eight-point lead at least has some logic behind it. And it's probably worth noting that Michigan went on a fourth-and-a-long-1 just past midfield last year in the first quarter while leading 9-7; a fullback dive got the first, and a Denard touchdown four plays later turned out to be pretty freakin' significant in a six-point win.

If anything, Hoke has shown himself to be a Les Miles-style balls-out decision-maker with little concern for the worst-case scenario, probably because he cut his coaching teeth on 42-40 MAC games but now has the defense to make the worst-case scenario less likely than ever. After watching Iowa on numerous occasions, I can assure you that this aggressiveness-type stuff is far, far preferable to whatever Kirk Ferentz's brain is filled with.

It's also why I won't be surprised by a change at O-coordinator and am convinced at this point that Michigan will be good (to some yet-to-be-determined degree) for the foreseeable future. Hoke is 19-6 after two seasons (pending a bowl game) and is recruiting like a boss, thus eliminating the talent deficiencies that have contributed to the lack of consistent O-line play and the relatively few issues on defense; it's hard to see Michigan not getting better over the next few years.

I wrote this the other day:
I would like to cling to the idea that Urban Meyer is John Cooper. I would like to laugh at another awesome Ohio season becoming infinitely less awesome because of Michigan. I would like to think that Brady Hoke might own Ohio the way Jim Tressel owned Michigan (except without the CheatyPants McSweaterVest stuff). I would like to think that Michigan will have gotten back to the good ol' days of "eh nine wins whatever." I would like to hold onto my totally unrealistic hopes of a BCS at-large berth in the Fiesta Bowl, where I'd get to watch Denard be Denard one more time.
Only one of things is now true: These are the good ol' days of "eh eight/nine wins whatever." I know because that's been basically the consensus reaction of the non-truckers who were emotionally invested in the outcome of The Game. And it could be worse; ohhhhh, it could be worse. There won't be any two-season bowl-less streaks or entirety-of-a-senior-class losing streaks to Michigan State or generational losing streaks to Ohio State or any of that crap; there will be more good things than bad, and that's, um, good.

I like good things. For now, the Generic Corporately Sponsored Florida Bowl will have to suffice; it'll have to since that's all there is until next year (The Year Of Gardner And Many Home Games), which right now seems so, so far away.


Post a Comment

Powered by Blogger.