Monday, December 30, 2013

Michigan-Kansas State: a game of thorns

If any football fan wishes to see a textbook example of indifference by a team on the field, during the entire game, simply pop in the DVD of the 2013 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl into the player and see how little Michigan cared about winning that contest.
It was a game essentially decided before halftime, and the 31-14 final outcome, in favor of Kansas State (a second-level team from the Big 12), was only for the scoreboard operator to monitor. In the desert community known as Phoenix, the Wolverines did not rise to the occasion; they produced no emotion, no sustainability, and no inkling of what to do in all facets of the game … except to demonstrate how meekly one team can play against another squad which actually cared about the final verdict.
It was, frankly, a boring game, an excruciating exercise to watch (for U-M fans) and a totally forgettable way to spend a Saturday evening. Apparently, the crowd (which contained the usual large number of rabid K-State followers), reflected its indifference, with only 53,284 in “attendance” (compared to the Sun Devil Stadium capacity of 71,706). It was noticeable to anyone watching on ESPN, as cameras shied away from any evidence of humanity sitting in the stadium’s upper decks.
The game might have been extended for two more quarters after halftime, but Michigan had surrendered much earlier, almost from the opening whistle. After all, how does anyone explain starting Justice Hayes, a sophomore running back with only three carries in 2013?
The real waving of the white flag came with 55 seconds left in the first half, when Michigan trailed 21-6. It had the ball at its own 46, on fourth down, and after a timeout and huddle conference, the decision was made to punt – to simply give possession away without so much as a whimper or an attempt to go for a score (or at least a first down). That was the sign of someone trying hard to escape rather than play-to-win – a shadow of the team that tried like hell to make a two-point conversion in the final moments to upset Ohio State just one month before.
I imagine the following prayer was being uttered in Wolverine household at about the same time I mumbled the words at 11:40 p.m. (CST): “Dear Lord, please let this game and this season end … as soon as possible!” It was the proper ending to a season when two of the team’s seven wins were miraculous endings against Akron and UConn (two vastly inferior teams).
Every phase of Michigan’s performance stunk to high holy hell. The beforehand reliable defense looked confused and constantly out of position, leaving wide gaps of playing turf open for the KSU offense to exploit. Perhaps the most telling statistic saw Matt Wile, the team’s placekicker, have more solo tackles than the two defensive ends (Frank Clark and Jibreel Black) – a sad state of affairs to say the least.
In his first collegiate start, freshman quarterback Shane Morris’ outing was workman-like, at best. He finished with 24 completions on 38 attempts and his lone interception (which led to KSU’s final touchdown) did not have any effect on the outcome, other than the point spread.
Morris mostly threw short “safe” passes – the longest gain (a 24-yard play to tight end Jake Butt) was yardage garnered after the reception of an 8-yard aerial. Morris averaged only 5.2 yards per attempt and a miserly 8.2 yards per completion.
In contrast, Wildcat QB Jake Waters, who Michigan made to look like a potential first-round NFL draft choice, completed 21 of 27 passes for 271 yards (and a healthy 12.9 yards per completion). Waters not only avoided tossing an interception, the plays were executed at such an efficient rate, U-M defenders didn’t come within the stadium’s confines of even sniffing a turnover (the lone recovered fumble only led to a three-and-out for the U-M offense).
The coaching staff, led by offensive coordinator Al Borges, took the easy route, and didn’t ask Morris to gamble on deep routes. All that safety dancing, however, meant the KSU defense could play a tighter zone and stop Michigan from garnering significant yardage after catches.
The manner of trying to protect Morris in his first meaningful action was admirable, but this isn’t junior high football; it was a time to discover whether he could be handed the eventual keys to the offense – either in 2014 or beyond. But it was much too timid of a game plan to demonstrate any capability of winning.
While the ball was spread among nine different Wolverine receivers, six of them combined for nine completions for a grand total of … 49 yards! Subtract a 14-yard play to slot receiver Devin Funchess, and you have eight “successful” plays for 35 yards – none over a 9-yard gain. No one can win at that rate.
Of course, Michigan’s total lack of any kind of effective running game hurt Morris all night long. U-M had to resort to trick plays (two of the first four running calls were reverses instead of going between the tackles) and those aforementioned dump passes to move forward. When Morris ran 40 yards on Michigan’s final series, it made him the team’s leading rusher … by a wide margin.
Subtract Funchess’ 14-yard gain on the first reverse play, everyone else carried the ball 13 times for 19 yards. The longest carry was all of 6 yards and the four depth chart-listed runners combined for 9 attempts, gaining 13 yards. What makes is so sad is it wasn’t the worst performance of the season … by a wide margin.
By the way, before anyone creates a false scenario, there is NO quarterback controversy at Michigan. No one can say junior Devin Gardner’s absence would have altered Saturday’s outcome, but Gardner is far, FAR more mobile than Morris and takes more opportunities to throw the ball downfield (north to south), not this West Coast, side-to-side dump-crap passing game on display with Morris under center.
The only point of concern will be Gardner’s ability to recover from what is obviously much more than “turf toe” and remaining healthy for his senior year. But it won’t matter if Michigan doesn’t produce a running game which at least is lifted to the level of adequate, instead of totally ridiculous (as it stands today).
The real difference, other than attitude, is the one commodity Michigan most lacks in its players – speed. Above anything else, speed is what distinguishes Big 10 teams from those in the SEC, ACC and Big 12; it also explains why Big 10 teams, mostly built upon methodical power football principles, have so much trouble in their matchups with teams in those other groupings. As often said, it is the one attribute a staff cannot teach; it’s either there or not.
This was not an ass-kicking because, despite the lopsided score, because no one wearing Maize and Blue actually showed their backside to the purple-clad Wildcats. In the first-ever meeting between these programs, Kansas State played like the outcome mattered to its future; Michigan looked like it was going through the motions of a light-contact scrimmage.
To U-M playing K-State meant nothing; just another name on the schedule with no history or tradition to inspire any player. To Kansas State, it meant a validation of its existence and a victory over one of the most vaunted collegiate programs in history was very meaningful.
I have spent more than a few hours in the state of Kansas; it is a sports fan base dominated by one sport – University of Kansas men’s basketball (almost to the exclusion of everything else). “Rock Chalk” is the main topic discussed in cafes, barber shops and in taverns; football is almost an after-thought. Kansas’s football program is a joke (hence, Charlie Weis is coaching there).
Within Kansas, the only school that truly appreciates its football is KSU, due to one man – 74-year-old head coach Bill Snyder. When he assumed control of the Wildcats, K-State was one of the five worst programs. In his two separate stints (1989-2005, 2009-present) in Manhattan, Snyder is now 178-90-1, and has been named National Coach of the Year five times; he IS Kansas State football.
Snyder can also “coach,” not just bring talent from across the Midwest and Southwest (including Texas, Oklahoma and other hot spots of talent). It was his game plan his troops followed to perfection in Tempe, making his opposing coaches look like prime-time JV hacks.
When Kansas State was on offense, one player stood head and shoulders over the entire Michigan roster – junior wide receiver Tyler Lockett, son of the school’s all-time receiver (Kevin Lockett). Lockett constantly barbecued, roasted and deep-fried cornerbacks Ramon Taylor and Blake Countess for three touchdowns and 116 yards overall on 10 catches ... and it could NOT have been a surprise, given a full month for everyone to ready themselves for Lockett’s ability to execute double moves and run tight routes.
But no one could stop him, or try anything to negate his influence (such as playing a tighter form of coverage or knocking his at the line of scrimmage to take him off his game, even for a brief moment). It was pathetic after KSU assumed its 21-6 lead.
For this reason, and many more (about 60 minutes’ worth), this loss sits squarely on the shoulders of the Michigan coaching staff. Given 30 days to produce a winning game plan, with or without Devin Gardner, Team 134 looked as unprepared, unmotivated and unemotional as any unit in recent memory.
And after three seasons, during which the team’s record have steadily fallen towards mediocrity, one must begin to harbor thoughts of buyer’s remorse concerning head coach Brady Hoke. He gives the impression of understanding the school’s storied history (something his predecessor, Rich Rodriguez, failed to grasp from the get-go) and can recruit like a demon.
However, getting players onto the campus is one thing; “coaching them up” is quite another. Aside from two victories over Notre Dame and a losing-streak halting victory over Ohio State (at home), Hoke has yet to command a true statement win, especially on the road. I’m sure Michigan fans are beginning to feel those ants in their pants, watching an obviously talent-laden roster lose too many games to satisfy any type of explanation.
Of course, the obvious question is, “If not Hoke, then who?” and the speculation should satisfy no one. I’m not possessed with the magic answer, nor is anyone within Wolverine Universe (especially AD Dave Brandon). But the talk will only grow louder and angrier if an immediate turnaround is not seen; and it won’t help to coach or perform with that Sword of Damocles hanging over the entire affair.
And the final insult to the Michigan program was this final audible note from the ESPN crew: with Notre Dame’s victory over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl earlier in the day, combined with Michigan’s loss, meant the Irish NOW sport the highest winning percentage in collegiate football history – NOT Michigan! It was one of those pre-game bragging points the U-M SID office would place before the media at every opportunity.
Now even that was lost in the desert and I’m not sure anyone really gave a hoot about it … by a wide margin.

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