Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Thoughts from the Weekend that Do Not Involve Meconium

Michigan - Notre Dame

Being a sports fan is a funny thing. Going into the game, I felt pretty good about how Michigan matched up with Notre Dame because UM's running performance in the first two games was likely to set up deep passes against Notre Dame's suspect corners and because Michigan's front four would present problems for the Notre Dame offensive line. That said, I was feeling like Michigan wasn't going to win because they hadn't won a road-opener since I was a 3L (1999) and this ND team was certainly better than the six teams UM has lost to during that stretch. So naturally, in a venue Lloyd had never won and against an opponent far better than the previous squads that ended Michigan's national title dreams in November, Michigan played its best game since the 1997 humiliation of Penn State on JUDGMENT DAY!!! and strolled out to a 34-7 lead by the time the game was 28 minutes old.

How does this happen? How does Tennessee win a national title the year after the best quarterback in school history departs? How does Ohio State win a national title in 2002 against a very tough schedule with a team with a negligible offense that would have been soundly beaten by the Bucks' '96, '98, or '05 teams? How does Barcelona reverse their fortunes against Real Madrid as a result of David Beckham proclaiming that he wouldn't play for the Blaugrana? How did the Braves win 14 straight divisional titles and yet the one team that won the World Series in that stretch had one of the weakest offenses of any team during the 14-year run? Days like Saturday are the reason why sports fans keep their faith, against all logic and despite the fact that, for most of us, the defeats hurt worse than the victories feel good.

To illustrate that last point, the moment that I decided that Michigan wasn't going to blow the lead (not an unreasonable fear, given Michigan's habit of blowing leads in this decade, not to mention Notre Dame's ability to come from behind [see: '93 BC and '05 MSU...and they lost both of those]), I started to think about the fact that Michigan annihilated Notre Dame three years ago...and promptly sleepwalked their way out to Eugene where they dug themselves a 24-6 hole from which they could not quite excavate themselves (although a bad call on their final drive aided in the loss...sound familiar, Sooner fans?). Wisconsin is next week and I full expect Michigan to struggle for the first quarter or so. The question will be whether they dig themselves a hole or if they simply muddle their way to a 3-3 start, after which they should dispatch the punchless Badgers.

As for the game itself, for once, Michigan set up an opponent beautifully. They spent the first two games of the season showing off their fancy new toy - a zone blocking scheme that takes advantage of Mike Hart's vision and cut-back ability - and then exploited Notre Dame's response to the fancy new toy - bringing up the safeties - by unveiling a cooler, fancier new toy: the deep pass. Three long TDs to Mario Manningham and that was that. The counter-measure that future opponents will likely try against Mike DeBord's homage to Al Davis - run, run, long pass - is to bring up a safety and leave the other safety on Manningham's side to force Michigan to throw deep to Steve Breaston, who has always struggled at adjusting to the ball in the air, and Adrian Arrington, who may or may not have deep speed.

Defensively, Michigan hit Brady Quinn over and over again. I started feeling good on the first play of the game when Quinn couldn't step into a deep ball properly because Terrence Taylor had pushed a blocker back into his face. Michigan consistently got pressure on Quinn by rushing only four, especially up the middle, and UM's players are vastly more active in zone coverage than they were under Jim Herrmann. (This is more a function of Herrmann the linebacker coach than Herrmann the defensive coordinator.) Quinn became less and less accurate as the game went on, culminating (for me, at least) when he missed a wide open Rhema McKnight down the left sideline in the third quarter. Quinn did not look very good in the game, starting with the second play when he threw too hard and behind John Carlson, leading to the first of Michigan's six touchdowns (I can't believe I'm typing that), but most of his struggles are attributable to the fact that he was his over and over and his receivers could not dominate Michigan's corners physically. Troy Smith will be better protected and is more accurate than Quinn, so he'll be a greater challenge down the road.

And one conciliatory note for Notre Dame fans: the biggest reason why ND lost this game is that they don't have good corners. This fact was covered in the first game by the fact that Georgia Tech only has one good receiver and it was covered in the second game by the fact that Penn State's running game didn't merit extra defenders in the box. Against a team that could run the ball, the corners were exposed. The reason why Notre Dame has poor corners is that Ty Willingham viewed recruiting corners and offensive linemen (after his first two classes) as an optional endeavor. Down the road, when Darrin Walls & company are more experienced, Notre Dame won't be so easily beaten by players like Manningham. That said, next year is when the Curse of Ty shifts from corners to offensive linemen.

Clemson - FSU

I know I'm getting soft when I saw Will Proctor's Dad crying after his son scored on a TD run against FSU and I got all emotional. Proctor, incidentally, is at least as good as Charlie Whitehurst was and Clemson is probably the best team in the ACC as a result. That said, being the best team in the ACC this year is not unlike being the most libertarian member of a Soviet Politburo. Saturday conclusively demonstrated that the sun has set on Miami and Florida State's empires. I can't imagine how frustrating it must be to be a Florida State fan. The team struggles because they can't move the ball to save their lives, despite excellent talent on offense, but there is no light at the end of the tunnel because the offensive coordinator happens to be the fruit of the head coach's loins and the head coach has the field named after him. The problem will only be solved when Saint Bobby either retires or is willing to eat cocktail olives for a month because he fired his son and his wife has refused to cook for him.

I feel really bad for Florida State fans, but I feel worse for Mr. College Football and other assorted pundits who were unaware that Florida State isn’t what they were before Mark Richt departed, and Miami isn’t what they were when Butch Davis was in charge of evaluating talent. You think that Kirk Herbstreit would like that “Miami to the Fiesta Bowl” pick back? He should have known better than to take a team with no receivers and four new starters on the offensive line, but even moreso when that team was Miami, a team that has struggled on offense in recent years even with plenty of returning starters on the line.

Florida – Tennessee

I started to have a few pangs of concern on Saturday night when Florida started running the ball effectively on Tennessee. My whole basis for deeming the Gators to be the most overrated team in the country, per the Charles Rogers Theorem, was that their losses on the offensive line would doom their running game and cause Chris Leak to have to run for his life. So what the hell were they doing running for 168 yards at over four yards per carry against Tennessee? If the Gators can block and DeShawn Wynn can run, then FloridaÂ’s weaknesses will be strengths and the Florida-Auburn SEC Title Game that every pundit predicted in the offseason will become a reality.

Ultimately, the question is whether Tennessee is the team that shelled CalÂ’s running game or the team that gave up yards and points by the bushel against Air Force. If theyÂ’re the former, then Florida will win two of three against Auburn/LSU/Georgia, brush away the Alabama/South Carolina/Florida State no offense posse, and head to the Dome at 11-1. If the Vols are really an 8-4 team that looked better than they are against Cal (and IÂ’m leaning towards this conclusion, mainly because TennesseeÂ’s defensive line is below their normal standardsÂ…and because I want the Charles Rogers Theorem to be right again), then 10-2 or 9-3 is more likely. One thing is for certain, though: FloridaÂ’s defense is very, very good, as evidenced by the fact that the Gators allowed 24 yards rushing to the Vols. Lord only knows what the Gator defensive line does to their offensive line in practice.

LSU – Auburn

I didn’t get to watch much of this game because I was too busy grinning like a fool as Tom Hammond tried to make sense of Michigan’s detonation of Notre Dame. (“Wait, this wasn’t in the script. What about my “Charlie Weis is a genius because he…SELF-SCOUTS!!!”) From what I did see, the defenses dominated the offenses (no surprise) and the game was very similar to the tilt in 2004, right down to the immaculate weather. I was disappointed in LSU that they got to the Auburn 20 with 14 seconds remaining, but didn’t get a single shot off at the end zone. They were first bailed out by a false start penalty that prevented the game from ending on Jamarcus Russell’s inept decision to throw underneath with no timeouts remaining, and then they threw six yards short of the end zone on the final play. I guess they figured that Auburn wouldn’t possibly give up a last gasp touchdown at home from 20 yards out…

Incidentally, it did amuse me on Saturday that Gang of Six member Florida and “OMG!!! West Coast Hottnezz Al Borges!!!” Auburn combined to average 14 points and 295 yards against poor, dumb Tennessee and LSU. Could it be that SEC defenses are very good and don’t simply benefit from playing on a weekly basis against inept offenses? OK, in my heart of hearts, I’ll concede that there are a lot of atrocious offenses in the SEC this year and the depth of the conference simply isn’t very good. There are four excellent teams (Auburn, LSU, Florida, and Georgia), one link-up midfielder that might be excellent or merely good (Tennessee), a bunch of feisty, but offensively-challenged and average teams (Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Vandy) and three absolutely abysmal teams (Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Kentucky). As I mentioned last week, Georgia essentially has a three-game schedule (plus Georgia Tech at the end). This is not a vintage SEC season, although I don't know which conference can say that it's having a really good year, other than the Big East and that's a relative statement: "See, we don't suck as badly as you thought we did!"

Bucs - Falcons

Forgive me for saying so, but the Falcons' game on Sunday was incredibly boring. It was so boring, in fact, that watching Fabio Capello turn Real Madrid into an Iberian version of Bolton was more enjoyable. (One quick note on Gol TV: I'm overjoyed to be able to watch Barca and Madrid just about every weekend now, but it kills me that there is so little crowd noise in the audio feed. Half of the enjoyment of watching European soccer is the atmosphere and Gol TV deprives me of that enjoyment by giving me so little crowd noise.) It was encouraging to see the Falcons throw a deep ball to Ashley Lelie, as the result would have been pass interference to just about any official other than the one running with the play. With the usually over-sensitive pass interference calls that NFL refs make on a regular basis, there's no reason not to throw deep on a regular basis. This is doubly true when you have a quarterback who throws a beautiful deep ball and a deep threat like Lelie. Sigh.

I was very happy to see the Falcons do what I and most fans with a passing knowledge of college football wanted them to try: running zone read plays. The personnel fits the play perfectly. It was great fun watching Vick and Dunn repeatedly break big gains on the play that Texas rode to a national title and West Virginia rode to the best season in school history. Eventually, Tampa figured the play out and started blitzing on the weak side of the play to stop Vick from breaking outside, but it seems likely that the Falcons have (or will put in) a countermeasure, probably a pass play to the outside to take advantage of that sort of blitz.

And we need to note, before we're done, that the Falcons have not allowed a touchdown in two games this year. Sunday's performance benefited heavily from Chris Simms' incompetence, so it wasn't as much fun as the shelling of Carolina the week before, but the pass rush was fairly good and the coverage was excellent. DeAngelo Hall was toying with Simms by the end of the game. The net result is that the Falcons have a two-game lead on their two primary rivals for the divisional title and the Monday nighter in New Orleans this week should be a lot of fun.


Ed said...

I’m going to play a game of what-if, Michael.

Imagine for a moment, Michigan played Ohio State, and during the course of the game, the Wolverines turned the ball over five times: two of which were turned into defensive touchdowns, while another two put the Buckeye offense deep into Michigan territory, so that Ohio State needed to gain a whole 18 yards of offense to score 24 of its points. Imagine again that the Michigan offense displayed the staying power of a concupiscent 16-year old boy, not managing more than 3 plays on 9 of its first 11 drives, so that the defense had to spend the entire first half on the field. That through the entire game, Michigan’s offense had a greater number of penalties than yards gained on the ground. That...well you get the point.

(I pose this as a hypothetical by the way, because I can’t imagine Michigan getting pulverized by a hated rival. ND, with 5 blow-out losses in its last 8 games against UM and USC, is starting to make such defeats a yearly ritual, like lighting a candle at the grotto.)

Anyway, would you, under any circumstance, point to the cornerbacks as the main problem for the defeat? Even if one of your starters was the baton-girl? Ty screwed us over with his inept recruiting of defensive backs, but Saturday’s defeat belongs at the feet of Charlie’s experienced, supposedly lethal offense. It played with zero emotion, looked absolutely out-of-synch, and hung the defense out to dry.

By the way, I like that you’re suddenly noting your pre-game confidence about Michigan’s ability to match up Notre Dame. That's not how I remember things...Do you usually plan gardening expeditions when your team is in for a competitive match? Or do you keep a separate diary of what you really think that contradicts everything in this blog?

Michael said...

Actually, Ed, your description sounds a lot like the 2001 Michigan-Ohio State game, or at least the first half when Michigan fell behind 23-0 at home to a mediocre Ohio State team by playing one of the most inept halves of football ever seen. (Oh, and the Big Ten title was on the line for Michigan, no less.) Michigan did fight back to lose 26-20, so they weren't blown out; the blow out was coming in the next game against a vastly superior Tennessee team. Anyway, I pretty much blamed the world for the Ohio State loss. I'm not sure where I'm going with this.

As for the cause of the loss, you're absolutely right that the offense deserves a lot of blame because of their first half turnovers and lack of production. Notre Dame couldn't block UM's front four, which was a little surprising because I thought that ND had a good line, and Quinn was off, even before the cumulative effects of getting hit on every play wore on him.

However, Notre Dame's allegedly faster, better secondary deserves a lot of blame. Recall that the game was 7-7 when Mario Manningham beat a corner (Wooden, I think) by TEN YARDS for a long touchdown. He then repeated this feat two more times, with slightly better coverage. You also should wonder why Manningham, UM's one deep threat, got match-ups against Terrail Lambert, your nickel corner, on several instances. Anyway, where I'm going with this is the fact that ND needed good corners to implement its defensive strategy. It couldn't leave its safeties back or Michigan would run all day. It needed good performances from its corners and ND didn't get it. I shouldn't have blamed the loss on any one factor and I hope I didn't, but you need better corners. Plus, isn't it more gratifying to blame the predecessor for anything that goes wrong?

As for my optimism, note that I wrote that I refused to let myself get my hopes up because of the road opener losing streak. I was pretty clear as to why I felt pessimistic. Also, I posted on Monday, but by Thursday, the line had moved from 7.5 to 4.5 in some places, which is an encouraging sign. If I would have blogged again, I might have reflected this confidence.

Ed said...

I’m just kidding about your supposed pessimism over Michigan’s chances. It would have taken a real lack of football insight (you know, the kind that gets you hired at cnnsi) to have seen an Irish romp coming.

Regarding your comments about the corners, what you wrote actually touches on the primary reason why I thought that Notre Dame was not a National Title contender coming into the season: depth. Notre Dame quite simply has none. The reason why you saw Lambert and Walls getting picked on is that Wooden got hurt on that brutal collision in the second quarter. When a senior starter is injured on this team, one of two things will happen: a freshman comes in or a Willingham recruit from 2004-5. Chaos inevitably ensues.

I think Saturday, in retrospect, proved to be a bit of a crossroads game for both coaches. It’s pretty self-evident that Carr saved his job with the performance: a loss would have put him at 9-8 over his last 17 games, not to mention 5 straight losses to teams named Ohio State and Notre Dame. It would have taken a miraculous rest of the season for that goose not to be thoroughly cooked.

As for Weis, the heretofore golden road could very well turn into a brambled path until 2008. If one could forecast the rest of the season, one would be hard-pressed to see a result better than 10-3. If so, his mantra that “9-3 isn’t good enough” will look rather foolish. Top that off with a difficult season ahead in 2007, and I think it is safe to say that the honeymoon is over for our corpulent genius. Not that he will be in any real danger, but there will be some grumbling about the huge contract, the inability to follow Holtz, Parseghian et al with an NC after 3 seasons, etc.

Then the fun begins.

And, of course, I blame Ty for nearly all of this. The final home-game of 2007 will be rather short on ceremony, as only nine players remain from Ty’s second recruiting class. I liken the last two years of Willingham’s reign to enduring a bad stretch of NCAA sanctions. Scholarships are limited, games are forfeited (in our case, not showing up in the first place), and bowl appearances are forbidden.

But we'll always have the bubble screen. And two wins over Michigan. How the hell.....?