Sunday, November 11, 2012

Wolverines not yet out of options

What’s that old saying that applies all too often? “Better to be lucky than good!”
It is exactly the right words to use in describing Michigan’s 38-31 home overtime victory over a gritty Northwestern squad last Saturday. The Wolverines, by any standard of measure, were NOT the best team on the field; Northwestern showed greater determination … until the very last seconds when a Hail Mary pass was miraculously completed and until the Wildcats just ran out of gas in overtime.
Otherwise, we’d be taking about Michigan’s prospects for winning the Oshkosh B’Gosh Bowl against Lord-knows-Who out of the Missouri Valley conference. Instead, the Wolverines still harbor hopes (albeit feint) for a spot in the Big 10 Championship game on Dec. 1.
Michigan’s inability to adjust to the Wildcat option offense, or react properly when a substitute to a pass-only quarterback was made by Northwestern, was the road to ruin until just a few seconds to play. When Roy Roundtree successfully controlled a Devin Gardner heave, thanks to hours of practice in tip drills, at the NW 9, it allowed Brendan Gibbons to punch through a 26-yard field with three seconds left in regulation for a 31-31 tie.
And following Gardner’s 1-yard run, on a planned third-down bootleg, to push ahead in overtime, Northwestern simply could not muster the up front line push (present all game long) over four downs … and that was that for U-M’s third consecutive overtime victory. Ironically, it WAS Northwestern’s first overtime defeat … ever.
I cannot say enough about Northwestern’s performance, which reflected the attitude and tone set by Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald (who at 37 is the second longest tenured conference head coach behind …? Kirk Ferentz at Iowa). For the first time all season, Northwestern rallied after surrendering a fourth-quarter lead, and after Gardner threw an ill-advised (and poorly-executed) pass for an interception with 3:37 to play, it was all over … spare for those 18 itty-bitty seconds.
By the way, a word to the wise – those Wildcat uniforms … didn’t anyone tell you that big people should NEVER wear horizontal stripes? Make you look “bigger” than you really are. At least, you dumped the purple pants for the road uniform.
While it was nice to win, there remain too many questions about the Wolverines performance and probably no more time to get answers or solutions. First and foremost on that list is the lack of a consistent running game, hampered by the absence of senior quarterback Denard Robinson.
Despite Gardner’s quality performances over the past two weeks, Michigan is NOT a better offensive attack when Robinson is missing in action. Robinson’s running ability is simply superior to Gardner’s (who isn’t bad, but doesn’t the same instinct to escape and find long gains as does Denard).
With the group of non-prolific runners behind the U-M quarterback, any added rushing offense must come from that player, and no one in the country does it better than Robinson. So this talk about any quarterback controversy, or who should be the number one signal-caller if both men are healthy, is nonsense.
Against Northwestern, the running attack was as anemic as any game since the Alabama affair to start the season. If you scratch that 50-yard run by Fitzgerald Toussaint in the second quarter (which was wasted when he fumbled away the ball upon being tackled), Michigan never averaged more than three yards per carry.
The front trio of guards Ricky Barnum and Patrick Omameh and center Elliott Mealer were being mugged and overmatched for most of the game. And that lack of performance by the run blockers was candidly reflected in the second-half play calling – no rushing attempts in the third quarter and just four in the fourth quarter out of only 22 total snaps from center.
That is NOT a winning formula. Luckily, Iowa is not as solid as Northwestern … but Ohio State IS, and will be a major end-of-term examination of how far the Wolverines have come in 2012.
But now the question, that truthfully must be asked, is whether Robinson plays again this regular season. It is obvious something more than a mere bump on the funny bone is keeping Robinson off the field. And if that IS the case, Gardner needs to be added to the regular rushing attack, not just gaining yardage while scrambling away from would-be tacklers.
Michigan sits at 7-3 overall and 4-1 in the Legends Division, tied with Nebraska but, in truth, one game behind, and with time and games running out. The Cornhuskers, who rallied AGAIN from a fourth-quarter deficit, only has games remaining with Minnesota and at Iowa (Michigan’s opponent this Saturday); both should be presumed victories, allowing them to be in Indianapolis against Wisconsin.
A reeling Hawkeye club, having lost four in a row, will be the next Wolverine “victim” when the senior class of 2012 says goodbye to a grateful Big House audience. Iowa, to be crude about it, sucks, and is one of several Big 10 teams facing no post-season bowl experience. Aside from Michigan State, Iowa is the biggest bust in the Big 10 this season. The Hawks sit at 5-5 and unless they can upset U-M or Nebraska, they ain’t goin’ bowling at all (for the record, Sparty is in the same hot seat).
It has been a weak year for the conference and the school with the best record – Ohio State – has chosen to waste its season while on NCAA probation (meaning the Michigan game is all that she wrote for the 2012 Buckeye season). Otherwise, OSU would have its nose placed squarely in the middle of the BCS title game talk (ahead of Notre Dame and Kansas State).
A couple of more “ChuckNotes:” My God, what are some school thinking when it comes to uniforms? Just God-awful. The latest violators are in Stillwater, Okla., when the Oklahoma State Cowboys appeared, at home, with these dirty gray shirts that looked like someone accidentally mixed in a pair of bleeding blue socks with the laundry; they screamed for a gallon of pre-wash!
I know this is perpetrated by the various sports apparel companies to sell to unsuspecting supporters, but, REALLY?!?! Stop mixing rugby with college football (don’t even get me started on the so-called fraudulent NFL throwbacks)! The classic look, like a basic black tuxedo for a man or a simple black dress on a woman (with a string of pearls), is always the best route.
I continue to wonder aloud why statistics during college overtime is accepted within the game stats. By rule, whenever the clock does not run, it is not an “official” statistical play, except for point-after scoring (and the yardage for those plays don’t count).
However, playing on a 25-yard field, in overtime it ALL is added to the regulation total, often over-inflating everything (especially passing touchdowns). The NCAA needs to recalculate that aspect of its record books.
At the start of the Michigan game, I must admit to having my clicker on full surf, for the first series. I kept switching over to The Longhorn Network (which I receive on my Fios cable package) to see Texas’ first offensive series, and its first-play dedication to the memory of the late Longhorn coach Darrell K. Royal.
In this state, Royal was a revered as Bo Schembechler was in the state of Michigan, and his death last week diverted thoughts from most Texans away from the election onto a period of college football history when the ‘Horns were perennial national championship contenders (and earned four of those titles).
It was made public what Texas would do on its first play, but after Iowa State pinned UT back at its own 6, no one knew if current Coach Mack Brown would keep the promise to lineup in the old wishbone offense (that Royal and his assistant, the late Emory Ballard, who later took it to a successful Texas A&M stint).
But Texas did what it said it would, the crowd to pay tribute and then watched as Brown pulled a 2012 twist on the 1960s formation – calling for a flea-flicker going from the halfback, back to quarterback David Ash in the end zone, who hurled a 43-yard completion to Mike Davis.
According to many, the cheers were deafening and tears flowed.
Michigan never got such an opportunity to honor Bo upon his passing (at home) and that is regrettable. It happened on a Friday and the next evening, U-M played at Ohio State (whose band, I must admit, DID pay a classy tribute to a native son).
Senior Jordan Kovacs was bestowed with the fourth retired number as tribute, wearing number 11 for the last 2-3 games of his collegiate career in honor of the Wistert Brothers (Frances, Albert, Alvin).
Still waiting to see if Michigan will do anything in 2013 with Tom Harmon’s retired 98.

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