Last night, as Michigan was in a dogfight with Illinois on the road in a crucial Big Ten game, every time the camera panned to Ron Zook, I kept thinking of Bobby Knight's line after the 1987 Midwest Regional Final against LSU. Indiana, the #1 seed in the region, had trailed by 12 points in the second half before rallying to win the game. Afterwards, when asked whether he was worried when LSU opened a significant lead in the second half, Knight said something to the effect of "yes, until I looked at LSU's bench and was reminded who was coaching them."
I've seen this look before. It typically preceded Florida losing to a team with the word "Mississippi" in its name.
Like Dale Brown, Ron Zook cemented a firm reputation in the SEC as an excellent recruiter who was prone to bad gametime decisions. More importantly, Zook cemented a reputation as a coach who did not have the authority to keep his players in line. After all, how do you respect or fear a grown man who gets into a fight at a fraternity to protect the honor of his players?
Saturday night, Zook's Illinois lived up to billing. They had everything going in their favor. Michigan's star tailback was out for the entire game and the Wolverines were forced to play a true freshman under center for half the game because Chad Henne was out. The game was played in a stiff breeze, which should have favored a running team over a passing team. Illinois runs an offense that has been absolute kryptonite to Michigan for the better part of this decade. Still, Illinois contrived to lose by ten, in no significant part because the Illini gifted Michigan one key first down after another. Michigan's go-ahead drove was aided by: (1) a personal foul facemask after Illinois had stopped Michigan well short of a first down deep in its territory; (2) a late hit after Michigan gained six yards on 1st and 15; and (3) a fumbled punt. Illinois had previously prolonged Michigan go-ahead drive in the second quarter with a roughing the punter call on 4th and 27. Illinois finished the game with ten penalties for 107 yards, a slight problem in a game in which they were already outgained by almost 100 yards. If this were a normal team with Illinois's youth, the repeated dumb mistakes could be attributed to inexperience. With Ron Zook on the sidelines, there's no reason to think that the problems will be corrected.
Watching Illinois implode made me appreciate Lloyd Carr. Lloyd and I haven't
seen eye to eye at times this year, but the guy does have some quality traits. Watching a Lloyd team across the field from a Ron Zook team can drive those happy traits home:
1. Michigan doesn't kill itself with stupid penalties. Michigan is 13th in the country in fewest penalty yards allowed per game. Here are Michigan's ranks in that category over the past seven years (which is as far back as the NCAA statistical archive goes): 38, 2, 23, 8, 7, 5, 19. In other words, Michigan has not finished outside of the top third of college football in fewest penalty yards this decade. Stew on that the next time an opponent roughs your punter on 4th and 27.
2. As much as I bitch and moan about Lloyd not being adaptable, he does show the ability to change. Last night presented three examples. First, as in the Appalachian State, Oregon, and Northwestern games, Michigan was significantly better defensively against the run-based spread after halftime. (OK, Oregon probably stopped scoring out of pity.) If I'm going to blame Lloyd for Michigan defenders becoming incontinent the moment they see a zone read play, I oughta note that their prostates function better in the second thirty minutes. Second, I repeatedly complain that Michigan doesn't kill games off, so what did the Wolverines do when they got the ball with a 24-17 lead and seven minutes remaining? They drove for a field goal and, gasp, threw successfully on both second downs on the drive. The irony was that last night was one of the few times that Michigan could have been very confident they they could protect a lead, as Illinois's offense is poorly suited to coming from behind or doing anything related to the forward pass. Third, confronted with a situation where Michigan's primary running threat was injured, Carr and Mike Debord chose to emphasize the passing game. Michigan was far more aggressive than they typically are on their offensive calls, although falling behind 14-3 probably had a lot to do with that. Note to opponents: don't wake the sleeping bear.
(One caveat to this love-in: Carrdbord's playcalling when Ryan Mallett was in the game was abysmal. Yet again, they chose to protect their true freshman by having him throw only on obvious passing downs.)
3. Something tells me that if a Ron Zook team lost its first two games of the year in humiliating fashion, it wouldn't respond by reeling off six straight wins. Lloyd's gruff, "f*** the outside world" demeanor can annoy me at times, but it's pitch-perfect for rallying a team from a poor start.
As someone who loves SEC football, but doesn't have an intense rooting interest in the conference, this has been an outstanding year in the conference. Seemingly every weekend, the league serves up multiple games that come right down to the wire. The consensus best team in the league - LSU - has been pushed to the last play in three straight weeks. Alabama played classics with Arkansas and Georgia; the Dawgs played classics with Alabama and South Carolina; and seemingly every Auburn game comes down to the fourth quarter. It's just great fun to behold.
My big beef right now is with the seeming consensus that Les Miles screwed up by going for a touchdown at the end of the LSU-Auburn game. To everyone advancing this opinion, I ask you: have you ever seen college kickers before? Is it so unbelievable that a 20-year old might not perform when a team's entire season is placed upon his shoulders? Is it inconceivable that Colt David would have missed a 39-yard field goal, given that he already underperformed significantly at home against Florida? Do we need to recount instances in which normally reliable college kickers have missed field goals with games on the line? Hell, do we need to recount instances in which normally reliable college kickers have missed extra points with games on the line? Miles and Gray Crowton called for one of the safest passes in football: a fly pattern down the sideline with the quarterback under orders not to underthrow the ball. The playcall was doubly safe because they knew that Auburn would not have their safeties back as they were desperate not to give up additional yardage. Their corners were not going to be playing off because they were almost certainly instructed not to surrender a short hitch or out pattern. Auburn's defense was begging for a deep ball; LSU simply did the rational thing and attacked the weakness of the defense.
Additionally, the caterwauling about everything that could have gone wrong is misplaced. Demetrius Byrd caught the touchdown with four seconds remaining on the clock. The time keeper didn't stop the clock for several seconds after the play. Thus, unless some sort of unprecedented juggling act would have taken place in the end zone, the play was not going to eat up the entire clock. A sack wasn't a significant risk on a three-step drop. Whatever imaginary risks the critics can dream up, none of them are as significant as a college kicker missing a critical field goal from 39 yards out.
And no, I'm not defending Les Miles simply because he's the odds-on favorite to be Michigan's next head coach, even if his decision was a bit of a Bull Halsey move.
The better criticism of LSU is this: what the hell has happened to their defense? I'll grant you that giving up points and yards to Florida and Kentucky is no great insult, but Auburn? When your offense has given you a six-point lead in the fourth quarter, how do you let Auburn drive the length of the field on you? How do you give up 24 points to Auburn in Baton Rouge after Auburn scraped nine points together in Fayetteville on the previous Saturday? Players reading their press clippings? SEC offenses figuring Bo Pelini out? Did we overrate LSU's defense after they shut down Virginia Tech's wretched offense?
I said this before and after the Georgia game and I will now repeat myself: Phil Fulmer was not going to lose his job for losing to Georgia; he's going to lose it for losing to Alabama. Bama is Tennessee's arch-rival. The Alabama-Tennessee series tends to go in streaks, which means that Vols fans would worry significantly if it looked like Alabama had swung momentum. Alabama just hired a proven commodity as its coach, which means that the scrutiny on Fulmer goes up a notch. The fact that the Vols got blown out in Tuscaloosa only makes matters worse. The fact that Tennessee never seemed to figure out that Alabama's gameplan was "throw the ball to D.J. Hall over and over again" is even worse than that. The fact that it appeared that Tennessee gave up in the fourth quarter is worse still. The fact that Tennessee will presumably be worse next year without a four-year starter under center is worse still.
For the record, John Parker Wilson played the game of his life on Saturday, illustrating the truism that just about any quarterback can have a good game with unlimited time to throw. LSU's defense is underperforming at this stage, but they will not give Wilson that sort of time in two weeks. I expect a vastly different result.
Gary Danielson was throwing around the Vince Young-Michael Vick comparisons on Saturday regarding Tim Tebow and it's hard to disagree at this point. Tebow combines running and passing threats better than any quarterback I can remember. This year is showing that Urban Meyer's offense can work very well in the SEC, but there needs to be a slight caveat that Meyer has the perfect guy to run the offense and we cannot assume that he'll be able to find someone to replace Tebow. Terrelle Pryor would be a good choice, especially because that would keep him out of Columbus.
I was especially impressed by Florida's response after Kentucky cut the deficit to 38-31. The Gators did not play for the clock and they were not going to give Andre Woodson a chance to tie the score against Florida's naked secondary. They went right down the field and scored a touchdown to ice the game. Maybe if you cheered for a team that hasn't iced a game in eons (although they made strides on Saturday night), you would also get excited about Florida going for the throat.