Sunday, November 10, 2013

Michigan-Nebraska: what's left to play for?

“You are the team your record says you are.”
– Hall of Fame Coach Bill Parcells
When I penned last week’s post-game analysis following the meltdown in East Lansing, I questioned whether Michigan could bounce back, strictly based on what I was seeing on offense and attitude. From my easy-chair (granted it’s not the same as field level), I saw the towel tossed in fairly early by a young team, unable to cope with operational dysfunction. I was hoping for a strong, bounce-back showing at home against Nebraska; and it came (for a short time) by the Michigan defense on its first series.
But never was it seen when the Wolverines had the football. As a result, Michigan lost to Nebraska 17-13, ended its long home winning streak (and the next home game will NOT start a new win streak at all) and eliminated Michigan from ANY Big 10 title game hopes, or any expectations to play in a Jan. 1-level bowl game.
Sorry to say this, Michigan is looking at a 7-5 record square in the eye ... seriously! It’s going to be the Pizza Bowl, a long trip to Houston (or Dallas to play in a crumbling 77-year-old outdoor stadium) or scarfing some Buffalo Wild Wings in Tempe, Ariz. I don’t see any alternative unless U-M pulls a “1969” and beats what will be an overwhelmingly-favored Ohio State at home.
In order to still do THAT, Michigan will have to repair some major leaks in the dam(n) – on offense in ALL facets of its game. It must start with the deteriorating play of quarterback Devin Gardner and the non-existent, non-respectable running game – in terms of blocking and carrying the ball.
Until that leakage is at least patched (fixing won’t happen until the spring), it will be difficult for Michigan to get any sustained scoring threat against opposing defenses that now know the singular secret to success – blitz the hell out of Gardner and simply squash the Michigan interior line. And for whatever reason, I have a feeling All-American (last season, not this year) Taylor Lewan is hurt more than anyone really knows; most rushing plays trend AWAY from him instead of following that big caboose right down the field.
Here are some key cumulative stats that tell a great deal of why Michigan lost.
Gains on first down plays – The Wolverines snapped the ball 24 times when the down box read “1” and gained a total of … 38 yards. That is the foundation down for any offensive drive and Michigan averaged just over 1.5 yards – meaning lots of second and- third-down plays with long distances to cover.
The range went from the 5-yard scoring pass from Gardner to Devin Funchess all the way to the failed 10-yard loss on yet another botched center snap in the pistol formation. The longest pass play covered 13 yards, but the longest run was just 7 yards.
Gains on attempted third-down conversions – Michigan was just 3 of 15 on third-down conversions (a horrible total for ANY college football team. On 16 plays, including a 5-yard penalty against Lewan for a false start than ruined that particular drive, the Wolverines gained only 57 yards (2-for-7 passing, 25 yards; 8 rushes-for-32 yards).
On fourth down plays, U-M was 1-for-3 for 0 total yards, including the last play which saw Gardner throw to Drew Dileo for the first time all game. Why he didn’t look elsewhere (he was laser-focused on Dileo), is a question one could have been asked the entire game.
Points after turnovers – Two Cornhusker miscues produced three measly points, (the last Gibbons field goal) despite unprecedented starting field position for Michigan – the best in two games – at Nebraska’s 33 and then the Husker 26 (after Dennis Norfleet’s recovery of NU’s fumbled punt return). But the two subsequent drives produced a total of five yards.
In fact, the last “scoring” drive sort of resembled the listless play in the overtime game against Penn State when U-M “settled” for a field goal instead of attacking the end zone. With the lone exception of the second half’s opening drive (the ONLY touchdown Michigan has scored in two games), the Wolverines didn’t really sniff the end zone at all (even on the first field goal drive, which was stopped at the Nebraska 10).
And there was this on that drive, with the exception of two failed carries by Fitzgerald Toussaint (for minus-2 yards), everything ran through Gardner – again for a lack of diversity in the attack due to a negative-existing running game. On Saturday, Michigan “ran” the ball 36 times and lost a total of 21 yards – the longest gain was by freshman Derrick Green for a whopping … 7 yards. For the last two games, Michigan had officially lost a total of 69 yards on the ground.
Toussaint finished with 6 yards on 9 carries and Gardner lost 32 yards on 16 carries (his long gain was also 7 yards). U-M MUST get more than 6 yards on 9 carries from its starting back.
Perhaps it IS time to discover who can play for the Maize and Blue in the future, beginning at running back. Sorry to say but Toussaint needs to SIT for the rest of the season; he simply cannot block any oncoming blitzing linebacker and has no visible energy to make the tough runs when needed.
Whether it’s Green, or someone else on the roster that hasn’t seen the playing field in month of Saturdays, a change has to be made and be made immediately.
And there is the situation with Gardner. Although the coaches would never yank him for freshman Shane Morris, I guarantee you it’s been discussed behind closed doors and fermenting in the recesses of their minds. His play can only be described as scared at time, hesitant ALL the time, and unsatisfactory to produce victories.
Against Nebraska, Gardner was generally useless minus the only touchdown drive (the only such happening in two games). Yes, he completed 18-of-27 passes and committed no turnovers (he came close once) for 196 yards (but a quarterback rating of only 16.8).
But no one among the 112,000 in Michigan Stadium felt confident about what they were seeing. In fact, the chorus of boos could clearly be heard over the ABC microphones and when was the last time THAT happened? The 2009 loss at home to Ohio State?
If Gardner cannot gain ANY yards with his legs (he either sits in the pocket too long OR continues to spin into the pass rush), when do you make a change? Or is it worth changing at this (low) point in the season? Michigan fans might not want to hear the questions, but deserve a few answers.
There WERE a few positives from the Nebraska loss. Linebacker James Ross III proved he can play with anyone and showed plenty of grit on the afternoon (he was Michigan’s best player).
Freshman tight end Jake Butt should be involved MORE in the offense; he blocked decently and showed, at times, catch the ball. With Gardner displaying too much tunnel-vision for just a couple of receivers on pass routes, adding a third option will only help. Obviously, one has to throw the ball (or get the heck out of the collapsing pocket) in order for the passing game to work.
However, the Michigan defensive scheme didn’t account enough for NU halfback Ameer Abdullah and surrendered too many long pass plays – notably the back-breaking 26-yard completion Nebraska executed on its game-winning drive … on fourth down!!! How many missed tackles can a good defense allow on plays like that? And how did freshman Josh Furman move from third-string to a starter at safety in less than one week’s time? Curious.
This defeat MUST hurt more than losing to the Buckeyes, because it came against NU coach Bo Pellini (not the guy earning Mister Congeniality among conference coaches and certainly not with the Lincoln faithful). After Saturday, he is somewhat safe in terms of his job security and his squad will play Michigan State this week for Legends’ berth in conference title game Dec. 7.
This will be Brady Hoke’s most difficult time as a head coach; he must lift THIS team to a form of respectability, beginning Saturday in Evanston. This is a matchup between the Big 10’s most disappointing squads and picking a winner, frankly, is a fool’s game at this moment.
After four weeks, Northwestern and Michigan were unbeaten and ranked high in the top 20 before falling completely off the cliff (as has happened by the Wildcats’ five-game losing streak). But if Northwestern can win two of its last three games (chalk the season finale against Illinois as a “W” and the game versus Sparty as a loss), guess what? A win over Michigan at home would mean Northwestern would be tagged with that infamous label – “bowl-eligible.”
That might be more incentive for the Purple Haze (to be dressed in a ridiculous-looking uniform of multi-colors) than what the Wolverines will take on the unfriendly road.
Michigan will probably finish with a losing conference record (behind Minnesota and Iowa for heaven’s sake). Whether it can be attributed to growing pains or a deeper problem, in the final three games of the regular season, several questions need to be answered, starting with playing personnel.
It’s been smash-mouth football all right, but Michigan has been the one getting smashed instead of the other way around. It IS the team its record says it is…

No comments: