Rich, it’s not you, it’s me.
Since Derek Dooley has made this the week to make World War II analogies, the Michigan defense is most like the German Sixth Army in February 1943: pathetic, feeble, stationary, ill-equipped for the task of fighting, and abandoned by its leaders. Penn State came into last night’s game last in the Big Ten in total offense. To boot, the Lions were starting a back-up, walk-on quarterback. 41 points, 435 yards, and 27 first downs later, the Lions had a win and Michigan has a complex. It’s hard to conceive of a worse defensive performance by a Michigan defense, but then again, we’ve been saying that a lot over the past three years, now haven’t we.
Not unreasonably, I thought going into the game that Michigan’s defensive success against Notre Dame’s back-ups in South Bend would be relevant and so I figured that the Wolverines would win comfortably. I was disabused of those notions when Michigan trailed 28-10 at halftime. The second half was much like the Iowa game. The offense scored to make the game reasonably close, but the defense couldn’t make a stop to get the ball back to the offense with a chance to tie. It’s not just that the defense is underpowered; it’s regressing. Michigan can’t even stop bad offenses now.
This hits on one of the major reasons why Rich Rodriguez looks likely to be looking for work at the end of the season: his teams regress. The 2008 team was a disaster, but moreso in the second half of the year. In the first half, Michigan was competitive with a Utah team that ultimately finished unbeaten and then beat Wisconsin in Ann Arbor. Last year, Michigan started 4-0 and was 5-2 after respectable, close road losses to Michigan State (in overtime) and Iowa (by two points) before the bottom fell out, starting with a hiding from Penn State. Sound familiar? The final straw last year was a disgusting performance in the second half in Champaign against the worst team in the Big Ten. Sure enough, after being Croomed out of the SEC, Ron Zook is on the menu this week to put the final nail in Rodriguez’s coffin. The shoe is on the other foot. Nothing quite says failure like going 0-3 against a coach whose name elicits laughter among college football fans.
The second reason why Rodriguez has failed in Ann Arbor is that his coaching staff doesn’t handle the small stuff. You know, stuff like having competent special teams. I first grew to like Rodriguez as a coach when I watched his 2005 West Virginia team rip holes through a good Georgia defense in the Georgia Dome. (Given what we now know about Willie Martinez, that might not have been the accomplishment that it seemed at the time.) That game ended with West Virginia using a clever fake punt to help run out the clock. Where exactly is that Rich Rodriguez now?
Michigan lost by ten last night, despite virtual parity in total yards and an advantage in yards per play. Likewise, Michigan outgained Iowa by 139 yards and lost by ten in its previous game. Michigan lost the Iowa game by turning the ball over four times, but the Wolverines didn’t have a single turnover last night. How does a team outgain its opponent on a per play basis, not the ball over, and still lose by double-digits? A massive disparity in field position is a good place to start. Penn State started three drives in Michigan territory; Michigan didn’t start a single drive in Penn State territory. The same was true in the Iowa game. How’s this for your stat of the day: in four Big Ten games, Michigan has started a drive in its opponent’s territory once. Part of this is because the defense doesn’t force turnovers, but it’s also because Michigan is terrible on special teams. Is it possible that Rich Rodriguez sealed his fate by his decision not to bring back Bryan Wright, a disappointing scholarship kicker who could do one thing well: kick the ball high and deep on kickoffs. If so, that would be a fitting coda on Rodriguez’s tenure: a short-sighted decision that didn’t put proper value on a small, but important part of the game. It’s not enough that Michigan fans are tortured by Jim Tressel’s record against the Wolverines; we now have to watch our head coach’s tenure wither on the vine because Michigan gives away a truckload of hidden yards as a result of insufficient attention to special teams.
The third reason why Rodriguez has failed is because he has the Tommy Tuberville problem: position coaches on his weak side of the ball who don’t mesh with the coordinator. Tuberville was undone at Auburn because his buddies on the offensive side of the ball were constantly interfering with the offensive coordinators who were brought in from the outside. In retrospect, Scott Shafer’s spectacular failure at Michigan in 2008 and his resulting success at Syracuse (the 'Cuse are currently 15th nationally in total defense and yards allowed per play) is evidence that Rodriguez’s position coaches got in the way of a capable coordinator. A similar issue might be going on right now with Greg Robinson, although it is just as likely that Robinson is simply a bad coordinator, in which case Rodriguez’s untergang is the result of a terrible hiring decision after firing Shafer. (One exculpatory possibility for Rodriguez: maybe Michigan wasn’t willing to pay for a top defensive coordinator. Robinson makes less than just about every defensive coordinator in the SEC. If this was the result of an edict from Bill Martin to hire a coordinator on the cheap, then Michigan behaved like a newly-wealthy guy who pays for a Mercedes and then skimps on maintenance.) It’s possible that Rodriguez could save himself by bringing in a proper defensive coordinator (after all, this offense isn’t far removed from Oregon’s, statistically speaking), but that might be a futile move if the same position coaches remain to muck things up. Also, if Rodriguez looked far and wide and decided on Robinson, who is to say that he’ll get the decision right this time? (This comes back to a question from earlier this year: is picking good coordinators a skill or is it simply a matter of luck and resources?)
The fourth reason for Rodriguez’s failure is that he just hasn’t recruited well. The defensive backfield that started the season consisted of a four-star wide receiver and then a series of three-star recruits. The big change for the Penn State game was to insert a two-star true freshman safety into the lineup. This is not all Rich's fault, but one would think that the response by Rodriguez and company to inheriting a depth chart that included a frightening defensive backfield would have been to recruit the hell out of the position. That hasn't happened. Maybe Rodriguez is unlucky in that he pulled in blue chip players like J.T. Turner and Vlad Emelien who didn’t pan out for one reason or another, but at the end of the day, I believe that Rich is unlucky in the same way that another Michael thought that Moe Greene was unlucky. And we know how that turned out.