Wednesday, January 02, 2008
The Tortoise Wins the Race
Michigan started the season losing at home to a I-AA team, leading me to question why I'm a sports fan. Michigan ended the season by beating Florida and its Heisman Trophy winner on the road, leading me to mist up as Lloyd Carr was carried off the field by a group of players who genuinely care for their leader. (Read this outstanding AP piece if you want more. Suffice it to say that having defensive players who cite Kipling to one another to get fired up appeals to Michigan fans and is one of the things I'll miss most about Lloyd Carr. There's much to be said for a coach who sells his players on poetry and uses his final locker room speech as an opportunity to remind them to finish their degrees.)
To me, the game was about Michigan's players and coaches finally reaching their potential and correcting their prior mistakes. The offensive brain trust finally decided that their best offensive approach would be a pass-based spread to take advantage of the team's depth at wide receiver (especially relative to Florida's poor secondary) and to create running lanes for Mike Hart. The defensive brain trust threw a bevy of new blitzes at Florida and kept the pressure up from start to finish. (The contrast between Ron English's defensive approach and that of Jim Herrmann in the same situations was telling. Carr's loyalty to Mike Debord has been frustrating, but he deserves credit for bringing in a newer, better defensive coordinator, even if it meant deposing a friend.)
Chad Henne, whose weakness as a quarterback was always a lack a pocket presence, had a precise internal clock yesterday. He consistently knew exactly how long he had to throw the ball. There was also a great closing of the circle moment yesterday. In the 2005 Rose Bowl, Henne missed on a third and three rollout pass when a conversion would have allowed Michigan to bleed down the clock and deny Vince Young a chance to come back and win the game. The play illustrated Henne's problems in throwing on the run. Yesterday, Henne completed a rollout touchdown pass to Adrian Arrington at the end of the first half that showed that he had finally learned how to make that throw. In sum, Henne probably played his best game in a winged helmet yesterday.
The game represented progress for Michigan in a third respect because they were clearly the better conditioned team. Michigan lost a number of games in 2005 because they weren't in as good shape as their opponents. I can't say that Michigan was clearly better conditioned than their opponents this year, but they certainly were yesterday. Bill Walsh said that the most important determinant of winning in the NFL was a fourth quarter pass rush. If you contrast the time that Chad Henne had to find his receivers deep with the pressure that Tim Tebow faced on Florida's last two drives, you'll see an illustration of this fact. Michigan won the fourth quarter because of its conditioning, combined with: (1) Chad Henne making faster decisions than Tebow in terms of where to go with the ball (Henne is certainly more advanced as a pure passer than the Heisman winner); (2) Henne's decisions being simpler because Florida's defensive backs are so weak; and (3) Michigan outcoaching Florida by dialing up better blitzes and putting in better pass protection packages.
Other random thoughts:
1. To quote my brother, there has never been a bigger disparity in terms of quality of a play-by-play and color guy than Mike Patrick and Todd Blackledge. Patrick got details wrong on just about every play. Blackledge made one good observation after another. For my money, Blackledge was the best color guy in college football this year, which just leaves me pining for a Ron Franklin-Blackledge pairing on ESPN Saturday night games.
Come to think of it, my dream pairing for the game yesterday would have been Tim Brando and Gary Danielson, just to register the repeated "does not compute" statements that would have been made from the second quarter on.
2. With all of the discussion of Lloyd learning from past mistakes, the play calling sequence after Michigan stopped Florida at 38-35 was dreadful. In a shootout where the opponent cannot stop your passing game, bleeding the Gators of their timeouts was far less useful than scoring a touchdown to put the game away.
3. I don't know if this is ironic or what, but Michigan's two biggest passing performances in the LLoyd Carr era came in Lloyd's first game as coach (375 yards against Virginia) and his last game (373 yards against Florida). I haven't double-checked this stat, but I'm fairly confident that it's right. [Update: the Virginia and Florida games are actually the third and fourth for passing yards in the Carr era. The top two performances came in losses at Ohio State in 1998 (the "David Boston gets his over Marcus Ray" game) and Iowa in 2003 (the "wait, we're doing this rolling punt again?" game).]
4. This is going to come off as excuse making, but it's probably fair to say that Michigan and Oregon were the two teams most damaged by injuries to their quarterbacks this year. Maybe USC goes into the mix as well if you blame Booty's dreadful performance against Stanford on his broken finger.
5. The talk of Florida starting next year as pre-season #1 or #2 was and is fanciful. The Gators were dead last in the SEC in both passing yards allowed and yards per pass allowed. The only way to conclude that they are the best team in the country is if you think that offense is 80% of football and defense is some sort of irrelevant sideshow. Florida's secondary should be better next year, but they have miles to go before they have a national title-caliber defense. 2009 looks to be their year. Their offense is outstanding, their run defense is decent, and they are well-coached, but they have a major weakness that keeps them out of the Oklahoma-USC-Georgia-Ohio State-LSU tier.
6. The game yesterday was one of the most emotionally satisfying wins I can recall since I started rooting for Michigan in the late 80s. First of all, it's great that Lloyd's legacy will be capped off with a stirring bowl win over a quality opponent. We all overrate the last piece of evidence and my last emotion watching a Lloyd Carr game was total happiness. Second, as a Michigan grad living in the South, beating Florida is a big deal because it gives a nice rejoinder to "Big Ten teams are too slow." If anything, Lloyd's teams were much better against SEC teams (6-2) than they were against Pac Ten teams (3-6). If one associates the Big Ten with running and the SEC with passing, then yesterday's game was a complete inversion of the stereotype, as Michigan passed the ball at will while Florida struggled in the passing game. Conversely, Florida ran the ball very well while Michigan was only OK in that department.
7. Lloyd, like most coaches, is obsessed with turnovers, so what do we make of the fact that Michigan won Lloyd's last game despite being -4 in turnover margin (or -3 if you include Florida's failure to field the second half kickoff)? Maybe the lesson is that not all turnovers are the same. Turning the ball over inside the Florida five three times and leaving the Gators with terrible field position wasn't the worst thing in the world.