Monday, September 16, 2013

Michigan-Akron: As bad as it looked

“You know how bad my voice sounds; well it feels just as bad.”
Babe Ruth, farewell speech to baseball, Yankee Stadium, 1948
To paraphrase the Bambino, “you know how bad your stomach sounded (in the final 50 seconds of Saturday’s game versus Akron); well it looked just as bad.”
The 28-24 version of “Escape from Ann Arbor” didn’t need Snake Plissken to snarl at anyone in the Michigan Stadium stands. Those folks among the 107,120 watching the debacle against a team which had lost 27 consecutive road games and was a 37-point underdog just KNEW things weren’t going to turn out well for the Wolverines.
After all, who is the hell were the damn Zips? What team, with any pride in itself, has a female kangaroo as a live mascot and is nicknamed for footwear worn in the depths of winter? The answer is ... the University of Akron, under the coaching of former Auburn mentor Terry Bowden, who outcoached his opposition and got his players to out-hustle and outplay the vaunted Michigan football program.
And if it wasn’t for one defensive blast from the past (the Rich Rodriguez era), it would have been the most embarrassing loss for U-M since 2008 when Michigan lost to Toledo at home in Rodriguez’s initial (disastrous) season. And that was pre-Tate Forcier …
What was needed, with five seconds left between victory or ignominious defeat, was the same call Rodriguez pulled out of the butt on Nov. 6, 2010 against Illinois on fourth down in the third overtime of a 67-65 defensive battle. RichRod asked to bring every defender on that final play to force a throw before anyone on Illinois was ready.
Déjà vu all over again and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison asked the entire student body to storm the pocket and force Zips QB Kyle Pohl to essentially throw the ball away on the final play.
Somewhere in Tucson, Rodriguez had to break a small smile.
Honestly, it should have never gotten to that point.
Now, all talk about Devin Gardner being the second coming of Rick Leach (still, to this day, the BEST dual threat at quarterback in U-M history) should be muzzled until the (still) young signal-caller proves he can play steadily without turning the ball over to the other squad. Thus far in 2013, despite some fairly gaudy passing and rushing numbers (that are echoes of Denard Robinson), Gardner is directly responsible for seven of the eight turnovers (one interception was tossed by backup QB Shane Morris against Central Michigan in garbage time).
Almost ALL of those miscues stem from poor choices by Gardner – much of it due to poor footwork in the pocket when he needs to escape pressure (he tends to turn INTO pressure rather than away from it). However, fans need to remember (in Gardner’s defense) it was just his eighth start at quarterback on a BCS level; that’s NOT a lot of time for a young player.
People will compare Gardner to Robinson for the next two years; that will be unavoidable. But when Robinson had problems, and committed a plethora of turnovers, it was against the likes of Notre Dame (en route to the BCS championship) or Ohio State – not Akron or Central Michigan.
Many, MANY questions will have to be answered during this week’s practices. Such as:
What has happened to the Wolverine punting game? Matt Wile is NOT the same punter who was a weapon for Michigan in the past two seasons. He is ONLY averaging 32.2 yards per punt (the 51-yard boot in the opener was made by Kenny Allen, not Wile).
And when opposing return yardage if factored into the equation, it’s just a hair over 30 yards, meaning the defense must face a shorter field to defend – a bad things on ANY level of competition. That’s a liability and a contending team cannot have such liabilities.
I’m not sure what solution is available. Colleges can’t pick up players on a waiver wire, or concoct a trade. You play with what you’ve recruited.
Sometimes kickers/punters are like relief pitchers in baseball – good one year and horrendous the next and no one can explain why. Three years ago, UM fans thought Brendan Gibbons couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn six inches away. Now, he is considered a fairly reliable three-point when he attempts a field goal (of course, as was par for the course, he missed his only try against Akron).
So things CAN change …
Where is the depth, in running back, people thought existed after the first two games?
Other than Gardner running out of the pocket when no receiver was available (as opposed to a pre-called quarterback option run), senior Fitzgerald Toussaint is the ONLY rushing option, and everyone – in the stands, in the press box and on the opposing coaching staff – knows it. The Akron game should have been one of those tryouts to see who would be in the Wolverine Running Idol finals.
No one made the grade and, because of circumstances, no one was invited to the audition. So will it happen at UConn this Saturday? Who knows and that question MUST be answered prior to the start of conference play.
Why can’t Michigan get any pressure on the opposing quarterback – either from the front four or linebackers? The Zips did not have the same size advantage this week as Notre Dame possessed last week, yet Akron, bouncing around like kangaroos, made Michigan look slower than “zippers” in a blizzard.
Either through better effort, or a re-crafted scheme, there MUST be consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback, or it WILL be a long, and unsuccessful, season. Hopefully the impending return of Jake Ryan, Michigan’s best pass rusher last year, will make things feel all better.
I’m sure many Michigan followers believed the Wolverines might well fall to a certain team from Ohio, but not THIS particular team. And all those churning stomachs in the stands had to feel as if their lunch was about to reappear in the most painful of manners. It was the type of game that induces involuntary vomiting; when it ends, you fell like a jockey, trying to make weight, just stuck his fingers down YOUR throat.
But the same fans, pointing fingers at problem areas for Michigan, need to take stock of what happened. First, some respect needs to be given to Akron; the Zips played with more passion and Bowden was the lead cheerleader. His defensive coordinator, former NC State head coach Chuck Amato (who spent 18 years as defensive coordinator with Bowden’s daddy, Bobby, at Florida State and has gotten rid of those ridiculous sunglasses he wore on the sidelines for the Wolfpack), did a whale of a job of forcing Michigan out of its comfort zone.
When your top three tacklers are secondary/safety people, it’s not a good thing, and when it was on offense, Akron constantly burned UM’s corners in the person of Zach D’Orazio and L.T. Smith. Poor Raymon Taylor was burned worse that a slice of rye bread in a cheap toaster.
When a third down stop was needed, Michigan only responded half the time (Akron converted 9 of 18 third-down situations, and actually ran more plays from scrimmage than Michigan).
Now … after ALL that has been said, written and spoke, there is a bottom line not given proper due – Michigan WON! In 2012, Notre Dame played most of its games looking like a bad Irish stew, outplayed at least half of those victories.
But … they were victories, not losses. This goes into the scorebook as a win and that IS what counts at the end of the day. What would you really do – win ugly or lose ugly? THAT answer is obvious to a blind man.
It was also a bad 24 hours for the Big 10 Conference; all but one of the schools previously ranked in the top 25 fell in the polling. Ohio State, blessed its’ cheatin’ little heart, remained at number 4, but all but one of the first-place votes went to defending national champion Alabama (and one vote for the Day-Glo mello yello Oregon).
Nebraska, up 21-3 over UCLA (at home), surrendered the final 41 points of the game and slinked out of the top 25. It’s just rewards for donning terrible uniforms (black tops in front of a crowd yelling “Go Big Red!”).
Along with Michigan’s debacle (resulting in a drop of four spots to 15th), Wisconsin looked bad in Tempe, falling to Arizona State; Penn State lost at home to Central Florida; Washington beat Illinois in Chicago’s Soldier Field; and Purdue lost an early lead and fell to Notre Dame, 31-24.
And based on strength of schedule, no Big 10 team defeated any team that could generously be called “quality.” The vanquished opposition, for those conference teams winning Saturday, consisted of Youngstown State (them Penguins), Bowling Green (ugliest colors in college football), Iowa State (perhaps the worst team in the Big 12, along with Charley Weis-led Kansas), California (NOT a Pac-12 powerhouse), Western Illinois and Western Michigan (I thought westerns were dead).
As said, it was NOT a red letter day for the Big 10.

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