Sunday, December 01, 2013

Michigan-Ohio State: Little things say so much

Sports are pretty much a bottom line proposition; there are NO moral victories … success is very much judged singularly on wins and losses. Closeness doesn’t mean much except when you snuggle with your significant other, or when you shave.
Michigan’s Team 134 more than held its own last Saturday afternoon in its Big House (filled with 113,000 fans and a few student absentees), eventually falling 42-41 to undefeated Ohio State in the final 32 seconds when a game-winning gamble failed on a two-point conversion play.
The loss left the Wolverines with a 7-5 overall record and an expected post-season bowl invitation to either the Texas Bowl in Houston or the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Tempe, Ariz.
And in SO many ways, the game was a reminder what could have been in 2013, and what the realities were (and often dismissed by U-M fans wearing blinders every Saturday). There were flashes, even bursts from a flamethrower, of the talent that existed on the squad, but its inadequacies were just as easily seen – as if the entire game was viewed through a 3-D process.
Little things you might have missed
In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, there exists one of the nation’s best sports radio talk show hosts by the name of Norm Hitzges, a longtime Metroplex presence on the sports landscape (heard on KTCK-The (original) Ticket). As co-host of the station’s post-game Dallas Cowboys show, he always presents a feature, “Five Key Plays You Might Have Missed.”
My list is a bit longer than that; some of them were obvious, and some have a different meaning from what people saw on the surface. But when added up, they made major impacts on the final outcome.
1) There were two tightly guarded pre-game secrets Michigan didn’t reveal until game time which had a huge impact on the game – injuries to linebacker James Ross III (U-M best defensive player over the past three games) and placekicker Brendan Gibbons, who “tweaked something” according to the ABC folks (which I took to mean a pulled muscle or hamstring). The absences meant an unproven linebacker Ben Gedeon would see more playing time, for which he responded spectacularly with a team-high six tackles and one sack.
But Gibbons’ inability to kick might well have been the difference (in the end) between victory and defeat for Michigan. It meant junior Matt Wile (the heir apparent for the placekicking job in 2014) would have to be pressed into service on ALL kicks, not just the ones over 50 yards.
In the third quarter, when U-M trailed 28-21 and with the ball at the Ohio 14, the Wolverines lined up for a 31-yard field goal attempt by Wile (after Funchess dropped a would-be first down – yet another small thing that added up). Michigan quickly had second thoughts and mere moments before the ball was snapped, a time out was called.
Still, the play was still executed (much like a baseball pitcher completing a throw to his catcher fractions of a second after an umpire calls timeout) … and Wile missed the relatively-easy chip shot to the right. Someone had to have noticed because it was the last time a field goal was contemplated.
That miss, I believe, led to the decision to go for the fourth down play – an incomplete pass attempt to senior Drew Dileo, which had thrown well short of the target. The reason for the miscued pass was a leg injury quarterback Devin Gardner suffered earlier in the quarter, which saw freshman Shane Morris quickly start to get limber.
A word about Gardner: he showed the kind of fortitude fans should remember for long stretches of time after the game is a distant memory. The injury was clearly hindering and hampering his movement, but he displayed what has been termed “true grit” and actually performed better as the game, and pain, continued.
With the exception of the lost fumble and two sacks, this might well have been Gardner’s best performance in a Wolverine uniform. He finished with 451 yards passing, on 32 of 45 attempts, finding nine different receivers in the process. In the second half, he completed 21 of 32 passes for 216 yards and three touchdowns, ripping the Buckeye secondary to shreds.

Dragging that bum leg, he still managed to make a vital drive-extending fourth-down run in the fourth quarter that helped U-M erased a 14-point deficit.
2) – OK, the play; the call! The fodder by which Detroit (and national) sports talk radio (and TV) will feast upon like that Butterball turkey devoured at Thanksgiving.
First, it was the proper thing to do, based on how the first 59 minutes, 28 seconds had gone. Overtime was an “iffy” proposition, at best, and Michigan had shown no ability to stop Ohio State’s running game at any point in the game, especially senior tailback Carlos Hyde. Trying to make plays on a short 25-yard field would have been impossible.
It was the proper call, but the wrong play … as it was executed. To put it in baseball terms, Gardner’s pass needed to be down-and-away to Drew Dileo, but it was up-and-in, and the Buckeye defender was the only player who could have caught it.
In retrospect, had the play been directed away from the cluster of three receivers split to the right, and towards tight end Jake Butt (utilizing his 6-6 frame), things might have turned out different.
Butt, an Ohio-based freshman, has certainly proved himself to be someone to watch in the coming years for U-M. He can block, he can run patterns, and as witnessed by his five receptions for 85 yards and one touchdown, he’s got hands.
Apparently, there were no second thoughts from Coach Brady Hoke, his staff or his players. At 7-4, there was nothing for Michigan to lose, and everything to gain, by playing to win the game with so little time left. In fact, I think people’s respect for Hoke might have increased and partially erased some of the criticism he has had to endure this season.
3) – Michigan was able to overcome two early errors in its initial scoring drives – one was a holding penalty on Dennis Norfleet’s kickoff return deep into OSU territory and the other a mistake by the officials when the first Buckeye punt was downed at the U-M 1.
On the punt, no one seemed to notice that the player punching the ball in mid-air actually had his feet planted in the end zone, which should have been a touchback and possession at the 20 (unless the rules have been changed on that basic rule).
4) – Midway in the third period, guard Kyle Kalis’ false start penalty negated a third-and-5 at the Ohio 45 to a more difficult third-and-10 proposition at midfield. Lo and behold, Gardner on the next play was stripped of the pigskin, with Buckeye Tyvis Powell recovering, leading directly to a quick 56-yard scoring drive allowing Ohio to gain a 28-21 advantage.
What was more significant was Gardner’s reaction to the flag; he actually barked at Kalis for the mistake – a clear demonstration (perhaps for the first time this season) of the quarterback taking the leadership role in the huddle fans had been waiting to witness since September.
5) – After the game was deadlocked at 35-all, Wile badly hooked the ensuing kickoff out-of-bounds, and not be a little. It hardly flew 30 yards before giving Ohio State possession at its own 35.
Not that it would have mattered, since the Bucks needed just six plays and a scant 2:41 to take the lead, 42-35, but the kickoff (one of several committed this season) was a momentum buster after the stirring Wolverine comeback.
6) – The regular season finale saw 17 seniors play their final game in a Wolverine uniform … far fewer than the number of players recruited for the Class of 2013. This was, essentially, a game between the remnants of two departed coaches, and who left their programs in better shape.
Without question, Jim Tressel proved himself to be a skilled recruiter before he was forced to hang up the vest for NCAA rules violations. Rich Rodriguez proved himself to be able to get offensive talent but not on the same level as his biggest conference rival.
The constant storyline of developing young linemen and secondary personnel into top-flight collegiate personnel might have begun to wear thin, but it IS the truth. The best fish in any high school pond has NO clue about the intensity and pressure of playing on Saturdays, compared to anything under Friday Night Lights. It is day and night and not every recruit adjusts as fast as the instant gratification of a team’s fan base ridiculously expects.
7) – Michigan actually corrected some deficient areas against this all-mighty Buckeye team. The Wolverines converted 8 of 14 third-down attempts (a far cry better than prior games), ran the ball effectively (152 yards on 35 carries for a 4.3-yard average).
And in total offense, U-M outgained Ohio, 603-526 … in a losing effort. Michigan simply could not stop the Buckeyes at the most critical times. Despite what the depth chart lists, the U-M defense front four was pushed around, manhandled and just plain bullied by a senior-laden Ohio offensive line.
It was a mismatch of epic proportions as seen in the tackle charts; the quartet for Michigan (Willie Henry, Brennan Beyer, Jibreel Black, Frank Clark) accounted for a total of six solo tackles and three assisted stops. If Hyde were to have been neutralized at all, it would have had to been the men up front doing that … and they simply could not.
Suspension should be forthcoming
Let’s grant this: a bitter rivalry game, between two teams that have no love lost for each other, can produce such a moment as occurred in the second quarter, after Michigan took a 21-14 lead. On the ensuing kickoff and return, when the play was whistled dead, players kept at it until tempers spilled out of their helmets and stupidity reigned supreme. After all, how would a punch at someone with more body armor than most police officers actually hurt anyone?
But there were helmets rolling toward the center of the field, pushing and shoving like it was Walmart at the start of Black Friday, and I’m sure usage of language that would make sailors on shore leave blush. It took both head coaches running into the pack to separate (and save) players from each other. In fact, it was a much better hockey brawl than anyone will witness on New Year’s Day when the NHL invades Michigan Stadium.
However, the antics of senior guard Marcus Hall went beyond the pushing and shoving and general melee behavior; it was downright embarrassing to the Ohio State players, coaches, administration and the Big Ten Conference. He slammed his helmet on the sidelines, ardently refused (initially) to exit the playing arena and then flipped-off of Michigan fans as he entered the tunnel (which must have looked very sharp on the Big House Jumbotron, and at home on a quality HD widescreen someone stood in line for hours in the shivering cold at the nearest Best Buy to get instead of nurturing that last piece of roasted turkey).
Yet all the ABC announcers (Bad Brad Nessler and Todd Blackledge) could repeat, ad infinutum, was how Hall would be eligible for Saturday’s conference title game in Indianapolis. Instead of outright, permanent scorn, it sounded almost like a built-in excuse.
As this is being written, the Big Ten has made no decision concerning Hall’s status for that game, but anything short of outright suspension would be unacceptable, hypocritical and cowardly. This should be a no-brainer for conference officials, to send a message that such crap is intolerable and will be properly punished.
But … it IS Ohio State ... it IS the 40th anniversary of a more-than-friendly conference decision favoring the Buckeyes … and it could influence the outcome of the conference title tilt. Anything short of suspension would reveal the Big Ten to have the same amount of balls as the common steer.
Hyde for Heisman
The annual Heisman Trophy race is normally a public relations campaign among quarterbacks, but I have not seen any college player as impressive this season as Carlos Hyde. Give the devil his due, that man was unstoppable against Michigan (as he has been since returning to action after a three-game suspension to begin 2013).
I’d normally say domestic violence and other “indiscretions” would be automatic disqualifiers for the Heisman, but the New York Athletic Club might well be handing hardware to a player who stands at the precipice of a rape charge (freshman Jameis Winston from Florida State).
Hyde is, without a doubt, the best NFL prospect at running back in the 2014 Draft (forget Mel Kiper, trust your eyes); he just exploded all over the Michigan defense like the Sta-Puff marshmallow man in “Ghostbusters II.” Of his 27 carries, only Jake Ryan caught him for a loss (-2) and there were nine runs of 10 yards or more, including three consecutive runs in the third quarter of 20, 11 and 12 yards.
Thank God Michigan, and the remainder of the conference, has seen the last of his “Hyde.”
Worthy less for the BCS?
There is a VERY strong argument for Auburn (11-1) leapfrogging Ohio State to the second set at the BCS championship table (assuming the Tigers/Plainsmen/War Eagles beat Missouri on Saturday).
Ohio State has won 12 games this season, but NONE will be against a top 25-ranked team (as of this Saturday). The ONLY ranked school the Buckeyes defeated was Wisconsin, ranked 23rd at game time, and Northwestern, rated 16th before completely imploding.
By comparison, Auburn not only beat the TWO-time defending national champion, but has also stopped three other schools ranked in the top 25 (Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Georgia). Its one setback came at Death Valley in Baton Rogue against LSU, thought to be a national title contender at the start of 2013.
Auburn’s opponents composite record is 75-57, with only two teams finishing with losing records (Western Carolina, Tennessee); on the flip side, Ohio State’s opposition finished with an overall 65-80 mark, and the Buckeyes have played six teams with losing marks (California, Florida A&M, Northwestern, Purdue, Illinois, Indiana).
That is hardly a ringing endorsement!
The game is supposed to be between the two BEST teams in the nation, not the best records. It is inconceivable to believe a team from the Southeastern Conference, admittedly the country’s best collection of teams, would not be part of the title game; meanwhile, Florida State has demonstrated its superiority with wins over the likes of Miami, Maryland and Clemson. In fact, no team has come within 14 points of the Seminoles.
Surrendering more than 600 yards of offense to a team that could NOT move the ball at all against Michigan State, Iowa or Nebraska is not what a national titlist resume should contain.
The only satisfaction Wolverine fans could garner from Saturday’s loss would be to see Auburn vault past OSU because it barely escaped Ann Arbor with its jock still in place.
Michigan coming to Texas???
If you wish to project a destination for the Wolverines in the post-season, as said, it centers on two destinations against teams from the Big 12 – both with losing conference records (which only seems appropriate).
On Dec. 27, the Texas Bowl (which is an updated form of the former Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl) will be held on Dec. 27 at 5 p.m. (local time) on ESPN. The following evening, the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (a substitute for the Copper and Bowls) will kickoff at 8:15 p.m. (local time).
According to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl game’s website, the matchup is scheduled to be between the third “pick” in the Big 12 – Texas, Oklahoma State or Baylor (all tied at 7-1 headed into the final weekend schedule since the conference no longer holds a championship game). The Big Ten representative is supposed to be the third or fourth team, in terms of standings, which is Wisconsin (third at 6-2), Iowa or Nebraska (tied for fourth at 5-3).
In fact, the conference team with the worst conference record is … Michigan at 3-5. Lord knows where that will land the Wolverines; probably the old, cold, Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day.
The Texas Bowl is not so particular about its invitees; it just wants an encounter between the Big Ten and Big 12, while the Heart of Texas gets a game featuring a lousy Big Ten team and someone from Conference-USA in the old, dank Cotton Bowl at Dallas’ Fair Park.
Of course, there’s the Little Caesars Bowl at Detroit’s Ford Field, with a Mid-American Conference versus the Big Ten pairing.
However, Saturday’s outcomes could throw a wrench into the works like Thor’s hammer. If Michigan State knocks off Ohio State, the Spartans automatically receive the Rose Bowl invitation. And one would think the Buckeyes would also be handed a BCS bid.
Then voodoo mathematics enters into the equation. Two BCS invitations would leave just five bowl-eligible to fill six contracts – someone gets short-changed. The REAL question is who and the answer is money; the bowl that pays out the most will get the Big Ten team and the short straw goes to someone like the Mid-American (which would seemingly rule out the Detroit game) or a different mid-level conference.
Projections, for example, see Rice playing Ball State in Dallas – a game I can guarantee will hardly fill the 92,000 seats that accompany the Texas-Oklahoma extravaganza annually. Last Jan. 1, Oklahoma State slaughtered Purdue before just 48,000 fans in the former TicketCity Bowl (a game that has a mere three-year history and was created to keep the old, venerable structure viable). Who would want to play in front of a half-empty stadium? Certainly NOT Michigan (too much pride at stake). And what would meeting an MAC team at Ford Field prove for Michigan?
Despite the overall record, U-M travels well, probably better than Minnesota or even Iowa. No, it’s either Houston or Tempe, either against either Texas Tech (which fell off the face of the collegiate football earth with five consecutive losses) or Kansas State (another sub-.500 conference school).
Still … it could have been so much better … and so much worse when you harken to games against Akron, UConn and Northwestern that should have been losses).
Which makes the off-season and spring practices vital for Team 135 – to show that what happened last Saturday, and those letdowns preceding Saturdays, to be flukes instead of the norm.

No comments: