Saturday, October 03, 2009

I Don't Know What I'm Supposed to Feel

In January 1987, John Elway drove the Denver Broncos 92 yards in roughly five minutes on the road on a bitterly cold day against Cleveland for a touchdown to tie the game at 20. The Browns were shell-shocked, lost the coin toss in overtime, and then watched Elway drive the Broncos against for the winning field goal. This afternoon, Tate Forcier drove the Michigan Wolverines 92 yards in a little less than three minutes in a driving rainstorm against Michigan State to tie the game at 20. Michigan then lost the coin toss, Forcier threw an interception on 3rd and five in overtime, and the Spartans scored a touchdown to win the game. I'm not a fan of dubbing every comeback led by a quarterback as Elway-esque, but geez, the parallels are a little strong, no?

What I don't understand is what Rich Rodriguez was thinking with his playcalling in overtime. As anyone who has read this blog over the past year knows, I'm a huge fan of Rodriguez. Michigan's performance so far this season bears out that confidence. That said, after his quarterback had just passed Michigan back from a 20-6 deficit in a game that they had no business sending to overtime, the playcalls in OT were surprisingly run-heavy. Michigan had failed to block the Spartans up front all day, so what were the Wolverines doing not putting the ball in the hands of their wunderkind until third and five?

Rodriguez didn't cover himself in glory in this game. His team wasn't as motivated as Michigan State. (This is often the case, given the fact that the Spartans roster has a number of players who were not offered by the Wolverines. Georgia fans, I think you can relate.) He is struggling to hold the offensive line together without David Molk. His decision to play Denard Robinson for a series after Michigan State went up 20-6 was indefensible and set back Michigan's comeback in terms of both time and field position. Worst of all, his decision to let Zoltan Mesko have a fake punt option on fourth and an inch from his own 17 was horrendous. I would have been fine with Michigan going for the first down deep in its own territory. The strength of the defense is defending in the red zone, so it's not as if giving State the ball inside the 20 is a huge loss. However, if there is one down in which a fake makes no sense, it's fourth and inches because the defense is prepared for it.

While Rodriguez deserves some blame, there's only so much that a coach can do when his offensive and (to a lesser extent) defensive lines are getting whipped. The fact that Michigan was even in position to rally and force overtime was the result of some terrible strategy by Mark Dantonio. True to his rock-ribbed, scowly Midwestern roots, Dantonio kept ploughing his tailbacks into the line to little success. Larry Caper and Glen "Fastest When Running Between Jail and the Practice Field" Winston combined for 36 carries and 87 yards. Meanwhile, Kirk Cousins was unstoppable when picking on Michigan's weak secondary and flaccid pass rush, both by throwing and by scrambling for first downs. Every boring run that Dantonio called kept Michigan from being blown out. Mark, here's a hint: if your team keeps converting on third and long, it might be a sign that you should be throwing the ball on first and second. The game illustrated the Allen Barra/Bill Walsh position that the "you have to run to set up the pass" maxim is totally wrong. Like Falcons coach Mike Smith, Dantonio doesn't know the strength of his own team. It would be one thing if Dantonio countered by claiming that the running plays freed up the passing offense, but the passing plays were working on third and long when the Michigan defense knew that they were coming. Dantonio seems constitutionally incapable of playing the style that his talent dictates, which might explain why his team is 2-3.

And in his attempts to mimic Lloyd Carr, Dantonio's decisions after Michigan scored with four minutes remaining to close to within 20-13 were idiotic. OK, the throw for seven yards on first down was a good idea, but the two runs between the tackles that followed were not. Both runs were snuffed out by a safety blitzing off the edge. On either play, if MSU would have called for a bootleg from either of the quarterbacks who had killed Michigan on the ground all day, then they still would have been running. Instead, Dantonio called plays that Michigan sold out to stop and he put the ball in the hands of a quarterback who has already shown an ability to drive his team for touchdowns in the fourth quarters of close games. Well done, Mark!

So coming back to the title of this post, where am I supposed to be when thinking about this Michigan team? They're 4-1 in a year in which I was hoping for 7-5. They have gone from Crompton-esque quarterbacking from SheriThreet to having a true freshman star. They didn't deserve to be in the game yesterday and yet there they were in overtime with a young team in its first road game against a jacked-up arch rival. That's all good. On the other hand, Rodriguez has seen his offense shut down by the in-state rival for the second year running. The offensive line appears lost without its center. The team is dependent on an undersized freshman quarterback who has looked gimpy at the end of each of the past three games. The defense cannot get off the field because its coverage issues pop up again and again on third down. That's all bad.

Someone help me out here.

3 comments:

Jesse said...

I don't know, but it sounds like about how I felt after the GT-Miami game. Last year's success plus all the returning starters and a solid game against JSU in Week 1 had me feeling really good about this season. Michigan's game against ND had most of the fanbase feeling the same. GT looks really solid early against Clemson then proceeds to stink it up defensively the rest of the night barely scratching out a win. This is where some questions arise and I begin feeling slightly uncomfortable about my team. I would guess something similar occurred with the Indiana. Then comes the Miami game, and while your Michigan St loss is not a shellacking the Miami game was for GT, the questions are still there. Makes you wonder if you aren't simply looking at a mediocre team that's still a year away from putting it all together.

Ameed said...

Jesse,

As an M fan, I think you hit the nail on the head, Michigan is absolutely a mediocre team that is still a year away (if the defense can improve next year, that is). We were all hoping for something respectable to wipe the 3-9 taste out in 2009 with a serious shot at Big Ten or BCS contention in 2010, and that seems to be the case.

I think many over-reacted to 4-0, it was essentially a best case scenario playing out, but our schedule gets tougher from here on out.

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