Saturday, October 15, 2011

Michigan-Michigan State: Examining the first loss

OK, Michigan is no longer an undefeated football team; the Wolverines simply did not play well enough, especially on offense (against the NCAA’s top-ranked defense, mind you) to defeat Michigan State for the fourth straight year (hasn’t happened since 1959-62).
The Spartans devised an excellent defensive scheme to bother/annoy/pursue/contain Denard Robinson, and, at the end, resort to cheap shots to punish the young man physically (more on that later). U-M could NOT muster much of a running game that did not involve Robinson, forcing too many passes and face a blitz package that the Wolverine offensive line simply could not handle.
MSU outran Michigan 213-82 as Spartan star Edwin Baker gained 167 yards on 26 carries. The junior from Highland Park (who played at Oak Park … which is quite a commute when you think about it) is probably the best pure runner U-M will face in the 2011 season; certainly the best in the first seven games.
While he accounted for 167 of MSU’s 213 yards, Robinson had half of Michigan’s 36 carries for only 42 yards while the other 18 attempts only netted 40 yards (26 of which came on one Vincent Smith run).
In fact, subtract a fake field goal run and an end-around, and NO Michigan running back did a thing. Only Fitzgerald Toussaint even touched the ball (and just twice at that). Where were Michael Shaw and Stephen Hopkins?
Without a shred of respect for the ground game, MSU spend all afternoon bull-rushing Robinson (and backup Devin Gardner) when it was obvious a pass play was called. The Spartans were well-prepared for the two-quarterback backfield (even if the ESPN announcers were not, but more on THAT later) and credit should go to their personnel and coaches. And Wolverine fans, Sparty will return as it only graduates two seniors off that defense.
However, it should still be noted the two weeks given to MSU to prepare for this game. It was one of those schedule quirks that never existed in the old days; back then, 10 games (and then 11) were played over a period of 10 or 11 weeks. No one had “championship” games because a bowl invitation was a sacred thing (Big 10 teams ONLY went to the Rose Bowl until 1976) and bowl games themselves are fewer in numbers.
There are no real excuses and I do not expect Coach Brady Hoke to employ any in explaining this defeat. Michigan was outplayed on defense and was unable to convert its second turnover into points.
Talk about NO confidence, zero, in your field goal kicker!!! One team spent almost the entire game inside the other’s half of the field, with a 35 mph wind at your back, and you are forced to go for fourth-down conversions four times!
It would be safe to say the off week “might” see a change in that position; no worse than a new battle to see who WILL at least TRY field goals.
The bye week will also allow for needed work on the offensive line. Two penalties, one being a holding call on a critical third down play, stopped potential drives inside MSU territory. Robinson, especially, was unable to move laterally in the backfield and escape the oncoming MSU pressure. He was sacked six times in the second half, for a loss of 36 yards, either trying to pass or running to the outside. Adjustments will have to be made there (including thoughts of just scrapping the two-quarterback set since no one on defense believes Gardner will do anything but throw the ball).
Now … to some REAL topics of discussion:
ESPN – I guess it is a real “honor” to have former Florida coach Urban Meyer be the color analyst along with (former Buckeye) Chris Spielman, but it does the audience no favors. Meyer might be a coaching genius, but on the air, he’s a boring monotone. Even when he was making cogent points that mere mortals would miss, he was putting people to sleep.
Spielman, a former Detroit Lion linebacker, probably knows the game inside and out, but all he did Saturday was bitch and moan and question EVERYTHING Michigan was doing on offense. I’m shocked he wasn’t wearing the old Scarlet and Gray plaid jacket seen in olden days on Columbus Dispatch writer Paul Hornung in every Big 10 press box.
And had either one of them spent ANY time watching tape of the past three Michigan games, they would have stopped the constant haranguing about Devin Gardner’s presence in the game with Robinson taking breathers. Dudes, it was a planned thing! So shut up!
One other broadcast note – in order to record complete games on my DVR, the allotted time slots, according to the network schedule, is way inadequate. This broadcast almost hit the 3 hour, 30 minute mark – ridiculous for any fan of the college game.
All that passing, and clock-stopping first downs, is one reason, but the length of commercial breaks, lasting more than 2 minutes every time play is halted (for called or network time outs) is long than one of Rick Perry’s attempts to answer debate questions … and that IS lethally long.
There WAS a time when a 1:30 p.m. kickoff still meant you left the stadium around 4 p.m., with plenty of time before dinner and parties and … sundown. This game started at noon and ended with the lights on at 4:30 p.m. Michigan time. It’s nonsense and ESPN is the main culprit; after all, one can only watch the same set of commercials over and over and over …
Uniforms – Don’t believe me when I attack this aspect. My poor wife, suffering severely from autumnal allergies, and half-conscious on Benadryl, wandered into the living room in the third quarter, looked at the TV set for five seconds and exclaimed, “Who wearing those God-awful ugly-ass uniforms?”
“Uh, dear, that would be Michigan State,” I said, nodding my head because half my game notes were about those monstrosities.
Why would ANY team wear uniforms that looked like they were designed by the Project Runway LOSER? Since when do you wear GOLD helmets, GOLD numerals and GOLD (effeminate) shoes when your fight song says your colors and GREEN and WHITE???
Oh, they are those “combat rivalry uniforms” the country was told. Combat against WHO? Nicaragua? Those uniforms were the most hideous thing this side of the University of Maryland; not to mention difficult to read.
Michigan, for its own part, dressed in a road version of the “Under the Lights” sweater, complete with the bumble bee stripes on the shoulders and arms. At least, they employed the school colors!
All this for the sake of marketing a different product to the novelty-purchasing public can go a tad too far. The uniforms against Notre Dame were special because they were unique. When you wear them more than once, ain’t unique no more. And, no Dave Pasch (play-by-play guy), those were NOT the uniforms of the 1970s – only the pants looked like that … at times!
The thing about following tradition is to following AS IT WAS; not as it might have been. Stop messing around with tradition for money’s sake!
Penalties – Here’s a question open to debate. Are penalties a reflection of player performance only, or a reflection of coaching?
Timing penalties happen when players forget snap counts or formations; it’s their fault. Delay of game penalties, more often than not, are failures to communicate between bench and quarterback; everyone’s fault.
Holding is a penalty that can be flagged on every offensive play in every game. All linemen are basically taught the same techniques; penalties happen when the techniques are exaggerated in game action and fail.
But personal fouls are a matter of discipline and discipline begins and ends with the head coach. On Saturday, most of the 13 flags against MSU were major infraction variety (plus two non-calls for taunting by Isaiah Lewis on his interception touchdown return and an obvious block in the back on a major gain by Baker).
At least three were for late hits, two for roughing the quarterback. But two calls stand out as particularly egregious. In the fourth quarter, it can clearly be seen how Spartan DE William Gholston takes his best “Manny Pacquiao” right hook to Taylor Lewan’s jaw. He brought it up from his hip and intended to cold-cock the Michigan tackle.
The official saw it in full view because he threw a flag, yet Gholston wasn’t ejected for that blatant of an infraction. Hmmmm.
A few minutes later, MSU freshman Marcus Rush was flagged for “roughing the passer;” specifically for body-slamming Robinson (in nifty WWE-style), essentially knocking the U-M star out of the game. My objection is the fact that Rush was still two steps away from Robinson when the ball was thrown and STILL scooped Robinson and slammed him to the turf – a deliberate attempt to injure.
Equally disgusting was the triumphant welcome Rush got at his bench, grinning from ear to ear and exchanging high fives with teammates. Of course, karma is a bitch and he still has to make two visits to Ann Arbor where anything can happen. I’m not wishing injury to the young man, but when you tempt the football gods, bad thing usually happen in return.
If you add to this indictment the constant use by MSU of chop blocking, going at an opposing player’s knees (which I had thought was a target of NCAA scrutiny to eliminate such injuries and techniques), as is said on “Law and Order,” you’ve got pretty damning evidence.
It is, frankly, why MSU head coach Mark D’Antonio cannot be included among the sport’s top mentors. Too many of his players wind up in jail at various times during the year (far more than seem to be academic casualties) and why his team played like it did Saturday – rough, chippy and downright dirty.
His team reflects, by its play, his coaching. I wish it appeared to be better, but I need more evidence to the contrary.
Luckily, Michigan has a bye week to recover and retool before the October 29 Homecoming game against Purdue. In the past two years, Moo U has handed Michigan its first loss of the season, followed by a fairly complete meltdown by U-M. But there WAS more fight shown in this game (even as a loss) than in the last three campaigns and the defense IS playing better.
I can guarantee you Michigan State will NOT finish division play undefeated – hosting Wisconsin next week and playing at Nebraska the following Saturday (the final four games are against the lower-tier Big 10 teams).
Michigan can STILL play for the conference championship … if it runs the table – which is asking a great deal of any team, but is what comprises CHAMPIONSHIP squads.

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