Saturday, November 06, 2010

U-M football: Bowl eligibility – flag football-style

When I was a student, I worked for the Michigan Daily – one of the truly great student papers (called The New York Times of collegiate journalism back in the day by none other than … The New York Times). We possessed some terrific talent; future Pulitzer Prize winners like Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post and Dan Biddle of the Philadelphia Inquirer, future top-flight writers-editors like John Papanek of Sports Illustrated, Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Leba Hertz with the San Francisco Chronicle, and David Margolick of The New York Times – just to name a few.
The Daily also sponsored a flag football team (The Daily Libels) that competed weekly in the student intramural leagues, with games played on the grounds across from Revelli Hall, off Hoover Street (called Elbel Field today but not back then). We had our “uniforms” and actually tried to produce an offense that worked for the unique form of touch football employed (the winner of a tied contest was determined by which side of midfield the ball was downed on the final play).
In all our trials and tribulations of that league, none of us weekend warriors (mostly out-of-shape, talentless oafs like me) played defense as poorly as does the 2010 Michigan Wolverines – tackle-version. Despite the mind-blowing 67-65 triple overtime win over Illinois on Saturday afternoon, this was THE worst example of how bad Maize and Blue looks when not on offense. Pass coverage was practically non-existent (even when everyone in the stands KNEW Illinois was throwing the football), and tackling still consists mostly of jumping on someone’s back and riding them to the ground.
Still, a win is a win and Head Coach Rich Rodriguez shouldn’t look that gift horse in the mouth. His team is bowl eligible for the first time in his three-year regime (look out El Paso, the Sun Bowl is calling us) and breaks an embarrassing two-game losing streak to Illinois. Next week, another two-game losing skein is on the line at Purdue (home of two silly mascot names – either Purdue Pete or Bruno the Boilermaker; thank God we keep a Wolverine mascot OFF the field … uh, we do, right?).
Seven wins will qualify as decent, but not good. Michigan fans expect, rightly so, better and by this point in the Rodriguez era, it should have been delivered.
However, that gift horse made it fun at The Big House against the Orange Smush.
The game saw ridiculous offensive numbers posted – more than 1,300 yards in total offense and the most point ever (132) in Michigan Stadium history. Receiver Roy Roundtree (the start of the game) literally had a career game with 9 receptions for 246 yards and two touchdown receptions of 75 and 33 yards (the first happening on the opening play of the game against a stunned and flat-footed Illini secondary).
The U-M defense also allowed ridiculous numbers of its own – 89 plays for 561 yards of Illini offense.
But, in the end, little yellow things, called officials’ penalty flags, allowed Michigan to win this ballgame. To be specific, out of the 10 Illinois flags (way too many to win), the offside call on third down-and-9 nullified an incomplete pass, forced by the defense on a scrambling Tate Forcier, gave the Wolverines new live (instead of fourth-and-long for the ballgame). Bing, bam, boom! Forcier hit junior Darryl Stonum (the pride of Fort Bend County, Texas and Stafford Dulles High School, outside of Houston) on a 9-yard touchdown to tie the game with 1:40 to play in regulation.
No one knew why Denard Robinson suddenly was seated on the bench to start the fourth quarter; no trainer was attending to him for most of the remaining time and Denard looked pretty healthy jumping for joy when the “kitchen sink” blitz on the decisive two-point overtime conversion finally did what it was designed to do – sack the quarterback (or “Sink the Bismarck,” I’m in a classic movie mode and that is one of my favorites).
In his post-game press conference, Rodriguez said Robinson was suffering from dizziness and headache after an apparent helmet-to-helmet hit late in the third quarter (which wasn’t flagged so no future NFL fine on anyone). When he departed, Shoelace has thrown for 305 yards and rushed for 62 more (as Illinois did a good job containing his breakaway ability). Rodriguez kept him out for “precautions.”
Regardless of the win, there are still as many questions raised from this game as points scored.
Where is Stephen Hopkins on short yardage situations? Why isn’t he out there instead of Michael Shaw? (sorry, but he does NOT run as hard as Hopkins and does NOT have the bulk to bull up the middle for key third down conversions). Hopkins gained 45 yards on only 5 carries. He must’ve done something right. While Shaw scored three times (twice in OT), he only had 44 yards on 9 carries.
What happened to Vincent Smith? He looks like he was actually finding daylight in the Illinois seams. Yet he disappeared so quickly in the second half, you’d thought Chris Angel was suddenly offensive coordinator. Smith led Michigan in rushing with 73 yards on 13 carries.
Is there any evidence that a tight end exists in the Michigan version of the spread? Why isn’t that player used as a safety valve, running drag patterns across the middle (which, by theory, should be ripe for exploitation)?
If you are only rushing 2-3 people on pass plays (which happens far too often against Illinois, producing virtually no pressure on either QB), why can’t someone among the remaining eight cover the back coming out of the backfield on wheel routes? It burned Michigan three times for scores and twice for long gains.
By the way, Michigan’s run defense was not much better, surrendering 315 yards (to two 100-yard gainers and one with 91).
Can there be a campus-wide announcement for open tryouts among the student body for a new placekicker? (male or female … if someone who looks like Kathy Ireland from “Necessary Roughness” can kick like that, she can have a job next weekend). The inability to post three points from high school range (under 40 yards) is now reaching the “disturbing” level.
Why is Michigan squib-kicking its kickoffs, allowing the opposition to have numerous short fields for potential scoring drives? Can’t anyone reach the end zone? Or keep the ball inbounds??? When you add poor kickoff coverage (time and time again), it will make you toss your tailgated lunch.
When Tate is “Forcier-ed” into the game, as cold as a dead mackerel, why was a pass play called for his first taste of action? Why not run the ball to get him into the flow of the offense? And Michigan had more turnovers than any box from Pepperidge Farms.
Why does it seem as if every penalty flag on offense is called against tackle Taylor Lewan? Two penalties (holding and offside) cost Michigan two scoring drives. Announcers kept calling him “overly enthusiastic;” they were being kind NOT to rip him.
Sidenote question: Why does anyone really “listen” to a thing Gerry DiNardo or Glenn Mason have to say during their post-game analysis on the Big Ten Network. Neither of them was good enough with their schools (Indiana, Minnesota respectively) to criticize ANY other coach’s decisions.
More importantly, why were Forcier and Robinson throwing the ball so damn much in an offense tailored to run for first downs?
The spread offense is nothing more than a variation of the old-fashioned wing-T, minus all those funky leather helmets and herky-jerky shifts. There’s a direct snap to a potential runner, who can also throw the football; you have one (or more if you desire) halfbacks for option handoffs in any direction.
However, it is NOT “designed” as a big play offensive scheme; it is a ball-control, time of possession scheme – meant to keep the other team’s offense OFF the field. Even Rodriguez will admit to it when pressed.
Now against Illinois, no one was directing it properly – partially due to the porous Illini defense. The first play scoring bomb was deliberate; it was a signal to Illinois to buckle up and get ready for anything. But the more Illinois surrendered long touchdowns and other passes, the more inviting that kind of play became; thus ruining the purpose of the spread – to run clock and control the ball. In the first half, Michigan scored 31 points but only had to ball for a little more than 11 minutes (not satisfactory).
This touchdown greed led to several drives stalling, and more than one turnover, when Robinson (and Forcier later in the game) shed the acquisition of easy first downs by running to open yard markers. Instead they wanted big plays for touchdowns, often into strong coverage or missing the receiver and turning the ball back to Illinois.
I’d bet my bottom dollar that come Monday, in quarterback meetings, this will be re-examined by Rodriguez with everyone. The best way to keep the defense off the field is to retain the pigskin for as long as possible … and STILL put points on the board.
Midway through the overtime, I texted my son, Robert, who lives near Houston, telling him the scoreboard read like a Texas six-man football outcome. He responded it resembled a basketball game.
“No,” I retorted. “We can’t score that many points this year in basketball.”
But THAT is another story and another posting for another time.
What happens from here all depends on Robinson’s playing status for next Saturday at Purdue. The Boilermakers played hard against Wisconsin and against the Michigan defense, any team sports more than an even-money chance to win.
A victory is great; it must have thrilled the crowd to no end. The late Bob Ufer would have gone totally berserk had he lived to call this game – his “General George Patton” horn would have been broken somewhere in the second overtime.
But Michigan seems incapable of actually dominating anyone this season and a laugher will be what you see at the theaters (“Due Date” anyone?) sometimes later that night.
So don’t forget to roll you clocks back one hour at 2 a.m. to end Daylight Savings Time for 2010. Rich Rodriguez should make sure it’s done properly for each member of his defense … because I don’t think they can cover that either.

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