Saturday, November 27, 2010

Michigan v. Ohio State: Talent talks; bullcrap walks

On Thanksgiving Day, I did what most males in their 50s did – I ate too much turkey (I was moderate on dressing and sweet potatoes) and sat in my easy chair, watching tons of football.
Despite my current address, I enjoyed New Orleans’ comeback over the (Keith) Urban-ized Dallas Cowboys, reminisced with some sadness as Tom Brady, a great Michigan alum, stripped Detroit’s defense bare in the second half, en route to the annual Lions defeat, and muted the sound while Texas A&M showed how ordinary the Texas Longhorns were this season.
But I also had my remote flipping to two channels, watching the way things USED to be. On the Big Ten Network and ESPN Classic, replays of past Michigan-Ohio State games aired. Looking at those Wolverine teams, from the 1990s, and early 2000s early demonstrated why the current crop of U-M uniform wearers have lost the last EIGHT meetings in a row to the Buckeyes.
It boiled down to one major different – talent. Michigan had MORE talented football players at most positions than its biggest rival – Ohio State. The reason John Cooper (a quality coach) was forced out of Columbus came because he lost so many games to Michigan. The reason it happened was simple – Cooper didn’t recruit as well as his predecessors (or his replacement, Jim Tressel, who has been masterful in that department).
The real reason Michigan dropped its seventh consecutive game Saturday to the Buckeyes, 37-7, (and the third straight in the hope-to-be-over Rich Rodriguez era) is identical – Ohio State has TONS more talent on its roster than does U-M. It wasn’t bragging this past week when an OSU starter claimed that only one Michigan player on defense could start for the Bucks; it was a stoned-cold fact!
Rodriguez is guilty of being John Cooper; he has NOT recruited enough talent in several areas, mostly defense and kicking. It’s why he cannot beat Ohio State, even more than the emphasis he may, or may not, have placed on this game in the past.
This loss continued the Tressel domination over Michigan, having won nine of his 10 encounters. He entered the job focusing, like a laser beam, on Michigan because he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that besting Michigan in all phases, would lead him to the top of the Big 10 – not Wisconsin, not Michigan State, not Purdue … it was Michigan that USED to set the standard for excellence.
Not anymore, sad to admit; Ohio State is the program by which all other conference schools are judged, including U-M. That is how far the Wolverine football program has fallen; signs of improvement aren’t being made fast enough. It’s the same that a hospitalized patient has made “improvement” going from a coma to being in extremely critical condition.
Or as Groucho Marx would say, “I’m a success story; I’ve worked my way up from nothing to a case of extreme poverty.” Michigan is still impoverished on its roster.
The Wolverines have a relatively small (but important) senior class departing after the lousy bowl game it will appear in December. There will be many key holes on both sides of the ball to replace in 2011. And as I looked at the roster for this post-game analysis, most of the 2010 juniors simply never got on the field. Jordan Kovacs wasn’t even recruited by either Rodriguez or former coach Lloyd Carr; he was a walk-on.
It left me wondering exactly where all this recruited up-and-coming talent exists. Being forced to play freshman after freshman simply is not a formula for victory. And with the defense is such a state of ineptness, which will come to Michigan to save it from itself?
As for the game itself, it wasn’t so much a tragedy as embarrassing; most of the second half, and all of the fourth quarter, felt like a death march. All I kept mumbling was trying to determine when the game would end from its funereal existence. As soon as Tate Forcier threw a poorly conceived pass on the first play of the second half, I knew, in my heart, the white flag had been raised. I saw no fire on the sidelines and no emotion coming out of Rodriguez. Every time the ABC camera panned to him, he had this “Why is this happening to me?” puss – not the kind of face a coach with his job on the line should possess.
Unless you KNOW this era is over … or should be. RichRod stands at 15-22 overall in his three seasons – the WORST ever losing (he hasn’t won anything ever here) percentage in Michigan football history … period! Another stoned-cold fact! The only “quality” win over a BCS team appears to be the season-opener over … Connecticut (whose apparent future appearance in the Fiesta Bowl should tell you why the Big East should be removed as an automatic qualifying conference for the BCS).
While the offense dominated the first quarter, Rodriguez’s total lack of faith in his kicking game forced decisions no other coach would allow to himself to be placed. Field goals that normally would have been automatic choices were not considered and it costs Michigan early points and early momentum. Fumbles and dropped passes only compounded the problem.
And when it came time for Michigan to punt, there was no punter! He was sitting in Ann Arbor suspended for “violation of team rules.” (One has to wonder what kind of player allows himself to GET suspended for the “biggest” rivalry game of the year).
Since an alternative punter does NOT exist on the Michigan roster, Rodriguez was forced to go with the player for which he had lost faith to even try point-after kicks. And that incompetence in punting gave Ohio State more points; Seth Broekhuizen, who has no business being on the Wolverine roster in 2011, launched three of the worst looking punts in school history. It simply made the Buckeye offense’s job much easier and the Michigan defense’s task that more arduous.
By the way: Ohio State’s punter is a former professional soccer player; the backup quarterback is a former minor league baseball player. Why can’t U-M find someone with those qualifications?
Of course, the U-M special teams, horrible all season long, continued that pattern by allowing a key 85-yard kickoff return for a touchdown (where a one-on-one block opened the enter sideline lane because there were no other Wolverine jerseys in sight). More lack of depth saw U-M kickoff returns handled by two newcomers ... because of injuries; as a result, U-M averaged less than 18 yards per kickoff return (Ohio State’s other return was for 26 yards, still above average).
Injuries everywhere can be a legitimate reason for less-than-stellar play. Denard Robinson could not play in the second half because of dislocated fingers on his left hand, and when he was playing, he only had one health starting receiver (Roy Roundtree) and one nicked-up starter (Darryl Stonum); gone were Junior Hemingway and Martavious Odoms. Consequently, it was easy for the OSU defense simply to double-team the obvious targets and concentrate on stopping U-M’s running game.
It didn’t help that Michigan gave up on rushing the football in the second half, executing only nine running calls out of 29 plays. But it didn’t matter; the outcome was not in doubt after halftime.
One cannot blame Michigan’s defense for this loss; this unit acquitted itself well for the first 30 minutes despite the 24-7 halftime deficit. If one removes the kickoff return and short field from the (first) shanked punt, it’s a much closer affair. The first OSU touchdown mostly resulted when no one called timeout from the Michigan sideline prior to Pryor’s 39-yard pass play on third down and deep in Buckeye territory. The defense looked confused and unprepared on that play but no coach signaled for a stop before the ball was snapped (and there was ample time do to so).
No, the defense played hard and snuffed the Ohio running attack, including Pryor for most of that half. By the second half, as said, the air had gone out of the balloon and it was basically all garbage time.
Any Wolverine fan looking for a silver lining in this loss will only go blind; nothing good came from this. I actually yelled at the TV, asking for the UM Marching Band to stop playing “The Victors” because the words “The Champions of the West” no longer applied.
Two postscripts: The officiating stunk this game; inconsistent at best. No one can understand why one play – the Ohio State fumble that was overturned – gets reviewed and another – the Buckeye interception to open the third quarter where the player didn’t really have full control – was not reviewed. Better guidelines need to be put in place. And some of the flags against Ohio State were just plain silly – unsportsmanlike conduct for diving into the end zone for a touchdown (where he was splitting two defenders) and for forming an “O” with his hands after a touchdown (especially when the gloves worn were designed to do exactly that). The officials waited until the fourth touchdown to make that particular call; only after it had been done THREE times before.
Second, can we PLEASE stop wearing ugly-ass throwback uniforms for college and pro football games? Ugly is as ugly does, and Ohio State wore ugly uniforms, notably those red helmets. When the 1941 national champion Buckeyes (for whom the uniforms honored) play, the helmets were made of leather and had no facemasks. The red coloring was to distinguish your team from the other guy. Yuck!
Back to my Thanksgiving epiphany of sorts: I watched the 2006 game replay with a keen eye – the 42-39 loss in Columbus – when the two schools were ranked number one and two in the nation; that was the peak of Michigan football personnel in the decade.
Then came Appalachian State, where U-M was embarrassed by a mobile quarterback in a spread offense. Suddenly, the Michigan fan base became enamored with this system and willing to cast aside whatever offensive scheme was being employed.
U-M lost 14-3 to a pedestrian Ohio State team and the inevitable changing of the guard was spray-painting on the walls along State Street. Carr stepped down but the “negotiations” with LSU’s Les Miles, a U-M alum, were bungled. (Frankly, I think Miles, who hasn’t played well with others in the coaching sandbox, used the whole affair to squeeze more money out of Baton Rogue).
Former Michigan AD Bill Martin, frankly, did not do enough vetting and homework on Rodriguez, the biggest “name” coach using this flashy offense. The other school having wild success with the spread was Texas Tech and it has never played a lick of defense either.
However, West Virginia did not play the same caliber of opponent as Michigan; it was easier to hide deficiencies when the competition wasn’t as keen. Rodriguez might not have inherited the quality of talent he expected in Ann Arbor, but he didn’t bring a complete championship program with him. He did bring some NCAA baggage, a costly contract buyout and more hope than reality.
Despite the 7-5 record (compared to the disgusting 3-9 record in his first year – a mark Lloyd Carr would NOT have had if he were still coaching), no clear-thinking Michigan football follower can truthfully say the school is “on the “verge” of anything resembling a Big 10 champion, let alone a BCS title contender. A winning record is what satisfies Indiana or Minnesota – not Michigan.
New athletic director David Brandon might try to say all the right things about evaluating the staff and its head coach, but if he isn’t contemplating an immediate alternative, HE might not be the right man for that job either.
There is a way for the faithful to have their voices heard toward that end – speak with your pocketbooks. If it becomes known that donations are drying up from the alumni, and won’t return until serious changes are made, it could be the force that pushes Rodriguez out the door and allow someone who can challenge Ohio State to be hired.
Someone who will not only challenge the Buckeyes but fully understand the importance of returning Michigan to its rightful place in the Big 10 – as THE standard bearer in football, and most other athletic endeavors.
‘Cause, brother, it ain’t happening now.

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