Sunday, October 06, 2013

Methodical Michigan-Minnesota recap: Where did the Big 10 Conference go?

After five games and the first of two bye weeks, the Michigan Wolverine football team might have just found the perfect word to describe its approach and execution to what has been a shaky undefeated season.
And the secret word is … “methodical” (cue the Groucho duck with a crisp $100 bill in his bill).
According to Webster’s Dictionary, “methodical” is defined as “arranged, characterized by, or performed with method or order (such as ‘a methodical treatment of the subject,’) and/or “habitually proceeding according to method (‘methodical in his daily routine’).”
Apply those definitions to Saturday’s 42-13 victory over visiting Minnesota; you will understand why the Wolverines took the Little Brown Jug from its perennial resting place (inside Schembechler Hall) and hoisted it to a sold-out crowd … and returned to its home.
Some might say the game was slightly “boring” or “dull” and perhaps some of us actually nodded off in between game “action” and commercials for the new Stallone movie.
Such a description should apply to the Big 10 Conference overall, but two weeks into league play, the same old faces can be found the same old places – atop the respective division standings. You just KNOW that all eyes will turn to November 30 on the calendar to figure out who will advance to the conference championship matchup one week later.
In a season where the teams were trying to re-establish themselves on par with other respected conference (aside from the Southeastern Conference, which, if you listen to every talking head on ESPN, is on the same level as the NFL ... at least in terms of how much teams pay their coaches and … players), it just isn’t happening yet.
Every conference team, with the exception of Purdue, had a winning record. Now just Ohio State and Michigan remain undefeated.
In fact, when Ohio State shreds Indiana the week before the Michigan game, it will have long before clinched the Leaders Division. And if Michigan is unbeaten for that encounter, it will be a back-to-back series – the first in Ann Arbor and the second in Indianapolis the following Saturday for the Big 10 title.
No one, except for the Wolverines, are on par with the hated Buckeyes. Iowa didn’t look good enough to stop Sparty’s offense, Penn State stunk up the joint at Bloomington, and Northwestern could encounter a major letdown after a spirited affair with Ohio State.
So WHAT else has changed? Nothing. The more things change, the more they stay exactly the same they should be.
The keys to Michigan’s eventual romp were simple, and well-preached over the previous four weeks. The Wolverine offense decided to eliminate mistakes of all kinds – turnovers, penalties, foolish plays. It doesn’t make for an exciting shootout-style scoring machine found in other programs, but, as reflected by the head coach, “methodical” is Brady Hoke’s modus operendi.
Michigan finally played 60 minutes of live game action and kept the ball in the proper manner, and only surrendered possession on punts or kickoffs. Meanwhile, it won the takeaway battle in the best fashion – putting points on the scoreboard, including a coffin-nailing interception returns (72 yards) by Blake Countess, his fourth pickoff in the first five games.
Quarterback Devin Gardner looked more composed behind center and actually ran just seven times for 17 net yards, but one important touchdown with 2:36 to play. He completed 13 of 17 passes for 235 yards and a 24-yard scoring strike to tight end Devin Funchess with 1:25 left in the first half and a 14-7 lead Michigan did not surrender.
Uh, would it really be too rude to call those aerial hookups as “The Men’s Club duo” because of all the double-Ds on the field
Gardner still needs lots of refinement to his game as too many passes were thrown behind Michigan receivers, not allowing for what should be quality yards after catch. The touchdown toss to Funchess WAS one of Gardner’s better thrown balls this season, not just in Saturday’s game.
Funchess clearly demonstrated his star potential; he might be the quickest player at this position since Paul Seal manned the post for Bo in the early 1970s.
The running game remains a work-in-progress but I was impressed with Fitzgerald Toussaint’s performance, not for the two touchdowns, but for the strong leg drive he showed. He hasn’t run that hard in almost two seasons and was responsible for having Michigan convert 10-of-13 third-down conversions.
The only other ball carrier was freshman Derrick Green, who still need to become more of a north-south runner than his tendency to move east-to-west along the line of scrimmage. If you subtract his initial 14-yard scamper on Michigan’s first scoring drive, he gained 9 net yards on 9 carries (and that includes his 2-yard touchdown run). But that’s what freshmen do.
Minnesota’s only major offensive thrust was led by surprising starter Mitch Leidner, who looked like a Tim Tebow starter kit. When he ran for yardage, his long, tall body gained almost as much falling forward as he did upright.
Leidner executed an impressive Gopher drive, 15 plays 75 yards, chewing up almost 10 minutes of the first quarter, to tie the game at 7-7. But it might have been the unknown factor that accounted for the initial Minnesota dominance because the Wolverine defense adjusted, notably in the second half, led by linebacker Desmond Morgan with 10 tackles.
Again, “methodical” works just fine when you’re winning and, in the end, it IS the win-loss column which accounts for the true measure of success.
The Gophers played the game without their head coach, Jerry Kill, as his battle with epilepsy forced him to stay in Minneapolis and overcome yet another seizure earlier in the day. It was the second occurrence this season, keeping Kill from roaming the sidelines (the other came against Western Illinois).
While applauding Kill’s courage for doing what he loves (coaching football) under such difficult conditions, a serious discussion needs to be held in Minneapolis as to whether he can be as effective a leader as the program really requires.
One couldn’t help but wonder how many decisions, and the play-calling, would have changed had he been in Ann Arbor. The acting head coach (also the defensive coordinator) was in the Stadium press box (as normal), sending defensive calls to another assistant to rely to Gopher players.
But it isn’t the optimum game plan to follow for any team – let alone a program aiming to climb out of the gutter it was walking prior to Kill’s arrival. The increasing number of episodes has to have an effect on the players, never knowing if their coach will be present to lead.
And the worst possible sight for Minnesota fans, players and officials would be watching Kill having a seizure ON the sidelines in front of a packed stadium. People already are squeamish at the sight of a player carted off the field on a stretcher, so imagine how many times that video would be played on Fox Sports, ESPN or YouTube. The thought is what should make folks uncomfortable.
This most personal choice DOES belongs to Kill and, hopefully, he will do what is best for himself, his family, his employers and his players. And in any case, I’m sure football fans will be rooting for him.
I know television now controls all aspects of college football, from when-where-how games are played, but it is mid-October and all games AFTER the Indiana home contest on Oct.19 have yet to kickoff times announced. This Saturday’s road trip to State College, Pa. will find an odd 5 p.m. kickoff (local time) and one can only wonder why.
But if you want to travel up to East Lansing, or play for the home game against Nebraska, you have no clue as to what time those contests will begin. That is a terrible imposition upon Michigan fans and those of the opposition … and SO incredibly unnecessary!
When a home game starts should be the provence of the institutions, not the network producers. It should be time for someone to stand up, and step up, for those who actually put their fannies on the seats. They already pay thorough the nose for those seats, it isn’t necessary to have them wait until five minutes before kickoff to disclose the starting times.
I’m real old school on this. You NEVER ever hear athletes praise the production crew for an outstanding performance or for helping carry a team to victory. No, they look into the stands and thanks the fans they can see and hear.
It’s time for some respect to be shown to the gathered faithful live and in person, and not at some Buffalo Wild Wings, guzzling beer and eating chicken wings by the dozens.
And did anyone get a good look at the playing surface in Evanston for the Ohio State-Northwestern game? I know of homes here in Plano, Texas, cited by code enforcement for not mowing their lawns enough, that weren’t as tall as the turf those teams played upon. It looked like the rough at any U.S. Open.
Only thing missing were the Chik-Fill-A cows …
My early (24 hours after Saturday’s game) prediction is a 31-21 Michigan win at Happy Valley. The sanctions against the Nittany Lions are already starting to be fully realized and that egg laid on the road might soon begin to add up to a carton.

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