Sunday, October 13, 2013

Michigan-Penn State recap: Wolverines lose in un(Happy) Valley

So many words can be said about this embarrassing loss last Saturday pertaining to the Michigan football program at this exact moment in the time-space continuum. To put it mildly, the Wolverine Team 134 had its Saturday Night Live moment and proved, at least midway through the 2013 season, is Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time.
The 43-40 quadruple overtime loss at Penn State was a combination of lots of “poor” this and that, so much so someone needs to call United Way for help. The blocking was poor; the kicking game fell into that category; the play calling went beyond “poor,” all the way to atrocious without stopping at GO! and collecting a road win; and, worst of all, the entire approach in the fourth quarter and entirety of the four overtimes, was worse than poor – it was a case of NOT playing to win the game.
The latter is what really mattered in the end, because it involved all those aforementioned aspects, rolled into one bad cake batter recipe. By playing it safe, and never really sniffing for the end zone, settling instead for field goal attempts, Michigan snatched defeat from the jaws of Joey Chesnutt.
Right now, Michigan has no running game, whatsoever! Neither Fitzgerald Toussaint nor Derrick Green could do anything, combining 30 carries for exactly 28 net yards. In fact, when one subtracts Toussaint’s 12-yard run to start Michigan’s initial scoring drive of the game, he ran an amazing 26 times for just 15 yards!!!
With or without All-American tackle Taylor Lewan, the offensive line was a bad replica of Swiss cheese – too many holes to even be mediocre. Penn State stuffed and stopped any plays between the guards, yet time-after-time, there was Toussaint, Green and quarterback Devon Gardner attempting to do what was clearly impossible – gain any ground against the Nittany Lions’ front four.
Yet … no plays were called to quick pitch the ball to any back to go wide; no “trick” play was signaled for a reverse or end around; no misdirection … no nothing! Michigan played an “insane” brand of rushing – trying the same play over and over and expecting a different result. It was bad, bad play-calling from the sidelines.
It didn’t help that the running backs would instantly turn to an east-west path at the lines of scrimmage instead of north-to-south. Green will probably be an outstanding talent in the coming years, but right now, he couldn’t push through a cheap high school booster banner, let alone a defensive line.
But Michigan’s rushing game has been reduced to those two players; no one else has been on the field since the first game against Central Michigan. Milk cartons might well have photos of Thomas Rawls and De’veon Smith on side panels to ask for help to find the missing people.
Gardner cannot be the be-all and end-all of the offense; it will be ridiculously simply to game plan against Michigan going forward; simply double team two receivers (Devon Funchess and Jeremy Gallon) and shadow Gardner’s every step. No other offensive threats have been established.
Of all the linemen suffering through a miserable day, none was more obvious than redshirt freshman Kyle Kalis, who was spun around more during pass blocking than little boy’s spinning top. In all, the offensive line allowed 11 tackles for loss by PSU – a shameful stat to say the least. He was also flagged for a dumb deadball foul that cost UM field position and ultimately possession.
Again, he has potential but fans need to realize (as I have) this is a young team, NOT up to certain challenges. You must wonder how Michigan handled Notre Dame earlier in the season (and how Michigan State did not).
Gardner must also shoulder some blame for the debacle; again, he resorted to being a turnover machine, leading to Penn State’s 21-10 halftime advantage. On the 2013 season, of the 15 turnovers committed by Michigan, Gardner is directly responsible for 13 of them. It is doubtful any other Division 1 player has such a percentage; certainly NOT Denard Robinson in his 2 ½ seasons as a UM starter.
Robinson did have his share of miscues but … he also possessed FAR more explosive speed and ability to instantly turn disastrous losses into huge gains. Right now, Wolverine fans wish Gardner would be HALF the player Robinson was; this is for sure, Denard Robinson would NOT have let Michigan lose at Penn State.
One reason for Gardner’s constant interception rate (the recent Minnesota game is the only career contest Gardner has started and NOT throw an interception) is his release point; a blind man can see it.
On his second interception, the defender has to merely reach up to snag the aerial when Gardner did not, or could not, put enough air under the throw to lift it over the defense and into the hands of an open receiver. It has happened often this year yet people only concentrate on his footwork; he needs lots more coaching on his “touch.”
Lest we forget, the Wolverine defense was suddenly exposed by Penn State on its final drive in regulation. Christian Hackenberg might be a fine quarterback in PSU future; he could well rewrite the record books and make University Park/State College (which one IS it?) fans forget all about Todd Blackledge.
On Saturday, he was essentially an immobile pocket passer who found the holes in the UM secondary and engineered an improbable (yet somehow predictable) game-tying scoring drive. Poor Chris Stribling had the “8” scorched off his uniform by PSU’s Allen Robinson, a taller more athletic receiver than the man covering him.
The question I kept jotting down – constantly – was simple, “Why is Michigan ONLY rushing three players?” Hackenberg displayed no ability to run from pressure (he was sacked four times) yet was allowed to sit in that cocoon and find receivers 23 times – for three touchdowns.
And if you play such a passive prevent defense with eight in coverage, why was Stribling alone on an island TWICE with PSU’s top receiver? That, folks, was a sideline decision.
After Saturday, what was almost considered automatic – field goal kicking by Brendan Gibbons – is now back in the suspect category. What happened at PSU has to weigh heavily on Gibbons’ mind for the rest of the season.
But it should have never come to that and the final scrutiny goes to where the blame really must be centered. This was by far the worst coached game of Brady Hoke’s tenure at Michigan, perhaps in his entire career. By NOT playing for the end zone (especially in overtime), you play to lose.
A developing team (which is what Michigan is) must always play to win – on every down! That did not happen last Saturday.
After a PSU field goal narrowed a seemingly-safe 10-point UM lead to seven, the Wolverines began to grind (like 8 O’Clock coffee at the old A&P) out yardage and clock. A Gardner run gave Michigan possession at the PS 28 with 3:10 remaining. Looking good, right?
Then the “insanity” re-appeared – running two plays for 1 yard and a procedure flag, continuing Michigan’s advancement to the rear. Instead of calling for a fairly safe pass play (a screen which went unused in the contest),Toussaint was dumped for a 3-yard loss at the PSU 35.
Punter Matt Wile was unable to pin Penn State inside its 10 and Michigan returned possession for what amounted to only a 15-yard gain. Hackenberg delivered manna from heaven and the game was tied with 21 seconds remaining.
Michigan might have had a better chance to win at the last second, but wasted one play, spiking the ball after Gallon caught a pass for 25 yards (following Dennis Norfleet’s 34-yard kickoff return). The next play was just for 5 yards to Justice Hayes with 7 seconds left.
There was certainly enough time for another play, another possible 5-7 yards closer, for Gibbons to try to win the game with a kick under 50 yards. But the coaching staff settled for what it had at that moment and it misfired.
In overtime, PSUs first possession was a missed field goal and Michigan reverted to conventional wisdom, which isn’t wise at all. There were three meaningless rushing plays to “position” the ball for a game-winning field goal kick; at NO time, were any of those snaps directed toward scoring a touchdown.
As a result, the field goal was blocked – wasted opportunity number 1 by the boards.
In the second OT, Michigan had a first down at the PSU 13 and tried just ONE pass play to the end zone, which was incomplete. Gibbons’ kick gave UM a slender three-point lead which was erased when PSU kicked it own field goal.
For overtime number three, Penn State again gift-wrapped the game when a fumble was recovered by Frank Clark.
But would UM go for six points and leave no doubt to its fans and observers? Uh, no! Toussaint went nowhere on third down and Gibbons pushed his field goal try wide left. Why didn’t Michigan TRY for six points on that third-down conversion when everything witnessed for the entire game told everyone running the ball was Borg-like (resistance is futile)?
By the way, I have always maintained that overtime statistics should NOT count on official NCAA game tallies. On extra-points, no yardage on a two-point conversion attempt counts on the official tally sheet because the clock does not run; same should hold true for overtimes.
This particular loss falls on the coaches, for playing too safe and, apparently, too scared to score and succeed. If this is not true, the proof has yet to be placed in the pudding.
Under Hoke, Michigan is a lousy 5-8 away from the Big House. It’s hard to say why (crowd intimidation, change of playing surface, circumstance of importance), but unless that trend is reversed, Michigan will not be a contending team – either for conference or national honors.
Everything has to change and soon. Indiana won’t be anyone’s patsy this Saturday at home and fortunately, Michigan has a bye week before a (now dreaded) trip to East Lansing against the now-division leading Spartans. It actually looks as if Sparty will play Brutus Buckeye for the conference title on Dec. 7.
Michigan, on the other hand, doesn’t have that look about it.

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