Sunday, November 03, 2013

Season on the brink: Green pummels Blue into Red-faced vanquished

I normally start these analysis pieces with a few snarky comments and a bit of witty play on words, but after Saturday’s debacle in East Lansing, losing 29-6 to Michigan State, it is time for serious discussion, and not viewing the remainder of the 2013 season through rainbow-colored glasses.
The Michigan football team 134 is in serious, serious trouble – on the brink of a possible collapse that will finish the regular season with a 6-6 record. And based on how teams finish the regular schedule, it usually means a loss in post-season bowl games. So 6-7 is NOT all that improbable.
Don’t scoff this scenario; no one can honestly state (with certainty) that U-M will defeat Nebraska at home this Saturday. The Cornhuskers have a very physical defense (although it surrenders an average of 24 points per contest), and the Huskers can run the ball (averaging 261 yards per game).
Meanwhile, Michigan’s running game has gone from non-existent to a total negative (those minus-48 against MSU was only the SINGLE WORST effort in U-M history). If a defense simply forces quarterback Devin Gardner out of the pocket, and double his two main targets (Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess), the Wolverine offense stalls, stumbles and dies on the proverbial vine.
How bad is the running game? The second-leading rushing against the Spartans was backup quarterback Shane Morris – with no gain on his one carry.
This cannot be corrected in a week’s worth of practice, or in the remaining practices in 2013. Neither can Gardner’s persistent nasty habit of spinning into oncoming pass rushes and getting trapped into huge, drive-crushing losses. His arm strength is not in question, but his footwork needs an entire spring session to attempt correcting.
Following Nebraska, U-M faces two road trips at Northwestern and Iowa. In each case for the home team, a win might well spell the difference between sitting home during the holidays and playing in some low-level bowl games (along with Michigan).
Imagine Michigan playing a spoiler’s role for those two schools; that is exactly the role the Wolverines will assume.
And then whatever home win streak exists for Michigan in Ann Arbor will be destroyed by Ohio State. There is NO WAY U-M can compete with the Buckeyes in its present condition.
In fact, Michigan will most likely be a double-digit underdog at home and when was the last time THAT was seen in Ann Arbor? It isn’t a far-fetched prediction to see OSU hit Michigan with 50 on the scoreboard, just because it can, and wants to do so.
When the bowl bids are then handed out, U-M fans better look at the standings of the Mid-American Conference, Conference-USA and the bottom of the Big 12. Those are the prospective opponents for the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit versus a Mid-American Conference team (Dec. 26), Texas Bowl in Houston versus the worst Big 12 team eligible (Dec. 27), Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Tempe versus a lousy Big 12 team (Dec. 28), or Heart of Dallas Bowl (in the OLD Cotton Bowl before a half-empty house) versus a Conference-USA team (Jan. 1).
These are the bowl games where Big 10 teams are contracted to appear; thoughts of playing in the Outback, or Capital One or Gator Bowl on Jan. 1 can be officially flushed out of your heads. Those games are for the better teams of the conference of which Michigan is on the outside looking in (for Chrissakes, Minnesota is ahead of U-M in the Leaders division).
But I’ll have more about all that later this week on
If you are more than a casual Wolverine football fan, you need to realize that what I’ve put down in writing is not a far-fetched fantasy; it’s a possible nightmare.
Now, I’d like to go back to last week’s pre-game blog to examine what I believed were the keys to victory … and actually what happened:
1) Battle of Pepperidge Farms (turnovers) – The two teams were dead even in miscues (one interception apiece), but that was a loss of Michigan. When Ramon Taylor gathered his interception, and returned it to the MSU 41, three subsequent plays produced a loss of 21 yards and with it, a blown (and rare) opportunity to energize the entire squad.
But other mistakes – stupid personal foul penalties and bad center snaps in the pistol offense resulting in a huge loss – meant as much as any turnover.
2) Watching those double Ds – MSU’s defense, as a unit, proved it was the best in the nation (now allowing only 104 points all season). It hit harder, stronger and longer than Michigan from the opening kickoff through the final whistle. And in winning the last five of six meetings, the Spartan defense has always been the difference.
Michigan’s pass coverage, at the key times, proved to be atrocious and if you pay close attention, you will see the same disturbing trend by defensive backs; they play the receiver and never the ball. On the critical second-quarter touchdown pass (a repeat of the same play that almost scored for the Spartans earlier in the quarter), no one even looked to see where (or when) the ball was headed. That only favors the receiver, who leaped up to grab the aerial and land in-bounds.
Taylor’s interception resulted because he actually turned toward the passer and saw what was happening.
Sophomore Connor Cook proved to be exactly what was predicted – an immobile quarterback, but that didn’t matter. No one suffocated MSU’s passing game at the key moments like Sparty did for 60 minutes against its hated rival.
By the time the fourth quarter arrived, the U-M defense was visibly gassed/spent/wasted. No one was left with the energy to stop the two drives of 68 and 97 yards (after MSU’s pickoff at the MSU 3). It’s was as much sad as humiliating because, for much of the contest, Michigan actually displayed grit against the Spartan offense.
But without an offense to relieve pressure from its defense (in terms of time of possession and especially field position), it was only a matter of time before the entire effort crumbled like rain-soaked hot dog buns.
And to mimic ABC analyst Todd Blackledge, exactly WHY was Fitzgerald Toussaint trying to go one-on-one with charging, blitzing linebackers on pass protection? What a losing proposition!
3) The Life of Tryin’ – Michigan did not maintain same intensity to return the Paul Bunyan Trophy to Ann Arbor (by the way, how legitimate is a trophy showing Bunyan with an ax between his legs???). You had to ask yourself afterwards, “Was THIS the kind of performance, coming off a bye week, anyone expected? And why?”
I think the most telling play about Michigan’s lack of aggressiveness (a polite way of saying everyone knew the game was over well BEFORE it was over) was Gardner’s attempt to get a first down when trailing 22-6 in the fourth period. Needing six yards for a first down on a third-down run, Gardner literally stopped a yard short of that goal when facing MSU defensive back Darqueze Dennard, and simply stopping his own momentum to be tackled three feet short of what was needed.
Luckily, MSU was guilty of an illegal substitution for Michigan’s initial second first down of the half. But the play spoke volumes of the obvious fear instilled in the U-M offense by the Spartan defense.
And despite pleas from the Michigan coaches to speed up its hurry-up offense, the Wolverines on the field was in no particular rush to get to the line of scrimmage and face yet another pounding by the MSU 11.
It was all anyone every needed to see.
4) What’s So Special About Special Teams? – Again, a slight edge to MSU because it kept U-M pinned with bad field position ALL game long. Of course, so many other factors entered into this ass-whipping, special teams performance had little to do with it in the end.
5) Capitol Tour – The Wolverines continue to lose important road games (now with a 5-9 record away from The Big House under Brady Hoke). But the question that must be answered: when was the LAST meaningful road victory for Michigan?
Answer: Actually, it came in Rich Rodriguez’ last season (2010) with a 29-24 last-second victory at Notre Dame (in Charlie’ Weis’ horrible regime). The last meaningful road conference win was in 2006 when U-M won 17-10 at Happy Valley over Penn State.
Oddly enough, the ’10 Wolverines were 3-2 on the road that season, capturing the State of Indiana sweep (Notre Dame, Indiana, Purdue). For the record, since 2007, Michigan is 11-18 away from home.
Simply put, NO program can be a contender for anything – a national championship, a conference title or any meaningful trophy – unless that squad can deliver away from the comfortable confines of its home field. Michigan has been too comfy and cozy in The Big House and simply produces a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality on the road.
And finally, the Michigan Athletic Department produced post-game notes about highlights of the team and individuals, setting new school records or personal bests.
At the bottom of the notes following the MSU game was an item about the presence of former quarterback Denard Robinson, visiting his team on his bye-week from the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars. His ever-present smile grew less and less evident as the game moved along.
One MUST wonder how many Michigan fans wished the clock could be turned back for one more year instead of losing an hour later at 2 a.m. for Daylight Savings Time; because Robinson was the last quarterback to be Michigan State in recent memory.
It was just a sad day in SO many ways Saturday.

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