Sunday, September 16, 2007

Felix Legion 38 French Crusaders 0

Really, with Russell Crowe giving the pre-game pep talk, was there any doubt that Michigan would notch win number one on Saturday? Shouldn't the point spread have reflected that the game pitted this:

and this:

and this:

against this:

and this:

and this:

What? You wanted actual football content? Cheap jokes involving Google images aren't enough? Fine.

This past weekend caused me to have a real "I was wrong" moment regarding Charlie Weis. I defended the extension that Notre Dame gave him, I defended the blow out losses to quality opponents, and I pre-emptively made excuses for the Irish being sub-par this year. The moral of the story is that I should stop trying to defend my least favorite college football program. I'm just no damned good at it. I expected ND to struggle to about 8-4 this year, with offensive line problems proving a difficult, but not insurmountable obstacle. I didn't expect the world's worst offensive line, one whose primary achievement yesterday was allowing me to joke to Der Wife about giving sacks in quarters because of the number of Michigan rushers who were piling on the Emu simultaneously. I didn't expect some half-assed attempt to take advantage of Michigan's problems against mobile passers in the spread by lining up Armando Allen as some sort of cut-rate Darren McFadden on the first play from scrimmage. I didn't expect a variety of spread formations that served to emphasize ND's blocking problems by removing tight ends and running backs as pass protectors.

Notre Dame clearly looks like a team that has spent a minimal amount of time on basic fundamentals. Sophomores and juniors are supposed to struggle to a certain degree, but the Irish have too much talent to be as bad as they are on offense. The explanation has to be that Weis spends so much time putting in a variety of plays so he can tailor each gameplan to the opponent that he and his staff haven't spent nearly enough time over the past three years teaching their young players basic techniques. For all of my complaining about Michigan running the same five plays over and over again and expecting that perfect execution can overwhelm the effects of predictability, I now see what the opposite extreme is. Frequent commenter and suffering Irish fan Ed explains in greater detail in the last comment to my watercolor from last weekend.

Another criticism of Weis is his staffing decisions and I have to say that I was unimpressed with Corwin Brown on Saturday (even if he is a Michigan grad and therefore impeccably educated). Michigan's game plan was transparently simple on Saturday: run Mike Hart into the ground, mostly behind Jake Long and the shuffling fullback/telegrapher. (Why the shuffle came back after a year off is an absolute mystery to me. I get angry every time I see it and Michigan football is theoretically supposed to be a happy use of my free time. I digress.) The runs were so predictable that Paul Maguire figured out when they were coming and where they were going. Stew on that for a moment. The monotony of HartLeft was broken occasionally by deep balls from Ryan Mallett. The logical defense against Michigan's offense would have been eight in the box at all times, combined with physical bumping on Mario Manningham, who has been contact-averse this year. On any play with a fullback and especially on plays involving a shuffle, every Irish player should have been crashing towards the line of scrimmage. Instead, Notre Dame inexplicably left two safeties back on a significant number of plays. Perhaps Corwin Brown, coming from the NFL, assumed that there was no way that the Michigan offense could really be that predictable. Penn State will probably not be as forgiving and will penalize Michigan for throwing mostly on obvious passing downs.

Speaking of Ryan Mallett, I reserve the right to change my mind the first time he throws an interception, but I'm enjoying finally having a quarterback who isn't an automaton. (His post-game quote - "I don't get nervous" - made me thinking about cueing up Take it to the Limit from Scarface.) I worry about an emotional guy who likely has supreme confidence in his ridiculous arm, but after Mike Hart is gone, Michigan will be lucky to have another spark plug. Mallett can also throw nicely on the run, which is another improvement over Chad Henne. Whether he avoids Henne's pocket panic is another matter entirely. Speaking of which...

Random Thought-Dreams

1. I've been on a kick over the past couple weeks in thinking that a quarterback's ability to sense a rush and get rid of the ball quickly is a critical skill that often gets overlooked in evaluating a quarterback. These thoughts started during Michigan's first two games when Chad Henne melted down every time he was pressured. They coalesced today when I was flipping between the Falcons game on Fox and the Colts-Titans game on CBS. There was a major contrast between Peyton Manning, who almost never gets sacked and has a perfect understanding as to how long he has to get rid of the ball, and Joey Harrington, who doesn't. I'm probably not breaking any new ground by concluding that Manning is better than Harrington, but it led me to think that quarterbacks who get sacked a lot aren't necessarily the victims of bad offensive line play. If a quarterback is slow in making a decision or doesn't immediately recognize where to throw the ball, then a play will often end in a throw-away or a sack (and color guys seem to invariably compliment quarterbacks for throwing the ball away), but most fans don't respond to that sort of play as an indictment of the quarterback the way they do for interceptions or obviously inaccurate throws. In other words, we pan quarterbacks for bad actions, but not bad inactions.

If you want further evidence of the importance of evaluating inaction as well as action, look at the Texans. For years, I assumed that David Carr got sacked a lot because his line was crap. Now, with a quarterback who makes quicker decisions, the Texans' offense is humming. Matt Schaub has been sacked twice in two games, including a game at Carolina. Why can't the Falcons have a quarterback as good as Schaub? Wait a second... VICKKAMPF, ALL IN MY BRAIN!!!

By the way, I might just be coming to a realization on the subject of quarterbacks avoiding sacks that most of you already knew, so just indulge me my moment of self-realization.

2. I listened to about ten minutes of the Georgia game on Saturday and Larry Munson sounded bereft of energy. I think he didn't want to come back, but decided to do so out of a sense of obligation. It was sad to hear, because his enthusiasm has always been one of his calling cards. Has this been going on for a year or two and I'm just noticing it now? The one game I listened to on the radio last year was the Colorado game, so I might have gotten a false sense of Larry still being excited.

3. Resolved: John Tenuta's defense feasts on bad quarterbacks, but a smart signal-caller who doesn't panic when blitzed can have his way with that defense.

4. During the second half of Ohio State's boa constrictor performance against Washington, I was thinking about how boring and efficient Ohio State is and it caused me to wonder whether Michigan is viewed in the same way (when Michigan is, you know, good). Watching Ohio State (pre- or post-Troy Smith) is like watching Italy or Chelsea; they almost always ground out a result, but the process is reminiscent of Bismark's quote about politics and sausage-making.

5. My predictions of Notre Dame to win eight and Virginia to go to Maryland 7-0 don't look so hot, but I'm feeling good about picking Phil Fulmer to be gone at the end of the year. When Tennessee under Fulmer was good, he was said to be an old-school coach who emphasized blocking and tackling, just like General Neyland did. Has anyone noticed that the Vols have been varying shades of bad at running the ball ever since the Travises departed? And John Chavis's expression on Saturday was probably not unlike that of General Gamelin in May 1940, a general seeing his tactics from the previous war laid to waste by a new way to skin a cat.

Speaking of which, as Urban Meyer (a guy who listed Michigan, Notre Dame, and Ohio State as his three dream jobs when he was at Utah) was laying waste to Tennessee, I was thinking about the approach of SEC powers to hiring coaches as opposed to the Big Ten. In comparing the two conferences, the SEC starts with a talent advantage because there are more good players in the Sunbelt than there are in the upper Midwest. Now, SEC teams have added a coaching arms race to their talent advantage. Florida hired the hottest coaching prospect in the country three years ago (and were swifter in canning Ron Zook than anyone in the Big Ten would have been). Alabama hired a coach with a national title on his resume, as did South Carolina. LSU hired a coach who had been successful at a BCS conference school. Tennessee will almost certainly do the same if and when they off Fulmer. I can't think of a single Big Ten hire in recent memory that comes close to South Carolina hiring Spurrier, Alabama hiring Saban, or even LSU hiring Miles. Instead, you have Big Ten teams hiring SEC wash-outs (Ron Zook), college defensive coordinators (Mark Dantonio [with three years as the head man at Cincinnati thrown in] and Bret Bielema), NFL position coaches (Tim Brewster), and college position coaches (Pat Fitzgerald). This is not to say that one or more of the Big Ten's recent hires won't be good coaches, but you can see why a gap might emerge. On a strict resume basis, the SEC is hiring much better coaches.

6. Going into this year, the CW was that Sylvester Croom was on a hotter seat than The Orgeron, probably because Croom was going into his fourth year and wasn't recruiting as well. That said, Croom has now beaten Alabama, Auburn, and Florida, whereas The Orgeron's SEC wins have come against 3-8 Kentucky, 3-9 Mississippi State, and 4-8 Vandy (in a game that Vandy outgained Ole Miss significantly). The Rebs got dominated over the weekend by Vandy and now have Florida and Georgia back-to-back.

7. The Alabama-Arkansas ending, followed in short succession by the Kentucky-Louisville ending, were great advertisements for college football in general and the SEC in particular. Who knew that Bobby Petrino would leave Louisville and the defense would collapse instead of the offense?

8. Someone needs to explain to me why John David Booty is a Heisman front-runner. He was decent, but nothing special last year, and he's shown no signs of being any different this year. On Saturday night, with a dominant running game in tow, Booty averaged a whopping 4.8 yards per pass attempt. His candidacy reveals the Heisman to be nothing more than a popularity contest for the best running back and quarterback on the top teams in the country. (Another newsflash on par with "Manning is better than Harrington.") It's relevant to casual fans and therefore, gets covered excessively by the major media outlets. I'm not entirely sure why I just spent a paragraph on it. I should have just said that Booty is average and left it at that.

9. Blake Mitchell threw three picks against South Carolina State over the weekend. This came on the heels of a performance against Georgia that can best be described as one near-disaster after another. I can't imagine what's going through Steve Spurrier's mind this week as he prepares Mitchell to play LSU on the road.

10. I think we can safely file Kirk Ferentz under the heading "being a hot coaching prospect is fleeting."


Anonymous said...

I like how you mention Manning and Heisman in the same breath. Popularity contest, sure, Michigan is more popular than Tennessee.

Michael said...

Michigan's media profile was certainly a factor in that vote. Woodson's performance in Michigan's biggest game vs. Manning's performance in Tennessee's was another.

Ed said...

Having endured some difficult moments as both a Braves fan and an Irish fan over the last decade or so (Game 3 ’99 World Series, USC 2002 anyone?), I can honestly say that Saturday was the lowest point in my life as a sports fan. To be completely inept at everything is one thing, but now we’ve added the element of self-destruction. It’s like watching a slug out there trying to commit suicide. To call us the worst team in Division 1-A seems almost charitable.

But on a brighter note: have you ever seen anything more comical than an ND quarterback trying to recover a fumble against the Maize and Blue? Quinn in 2006, Clausen in 2007….And you’ve got this for at least 25 more years, Michael. You are a lucky man.

Charlie Weis is in a tough spot. His boot camp/training camp (whatever) will result in either of two scenarios:

1. A continuation of the same. Notre Dame starts 0-8 and finishes, at best, 3-9 (more likely 2-10, possibly 1-11 or 0-12). Charlie’s recruiting class goes to hell, as opposing coaches sing a honeyed song to ND’s current commitments that highlights the team’s pathetic on-the-field performance, the embarrassing Demetrius Jones incident, and the New England Patriots’ Spygate (which obviously throws into question both Weis’s football acumen and ethics). There are multiple transfers as well, and we begin the tedious, despair-filled path to Charlie’s steep buyout.

2. The team regroups and begins to learn some fundamental football and perhaps finds some sense of what it means to play for a proud football program. The team actually competes in 2 or 3 of the next 5 games, and scores a minor upset against MSU, Purdue, or UCLA. At 1-7, the Irish sweep the finally four games and rescue their recruiting class, leading to the possibility of better times ahead in 2008 and 2009.

Obviously neither of these two scenarios is anything like what Irish fans contemplated at the beginning of the season. I honestly can’t see anything rosier. Scenario 2 is better than 1, but, sadly, I don’t believe one to be much more likely than the other. The season is a colossal nightmare, with questions abounding regarding the helmsmen of this team both on the field and off.

Tip of the cap to Michigan Saturday. Mike Hart really had nothing to lose with his prediction, given that the Wolverines could not possibly have looked more foolish than they did the first two weeks of the season, no matter the outcome of this one. Still, he backed it up with an inspired performance (aided, yes, by Corwin’s curious scheme). He seems like a good kid.

I will give the Wolverines credit. During the 20+ years that I have followed college football, you’ve never gotten the sense that the train is veering violently and irretrievably off the tracks (9/8/07 was the perhaps the closest it’s come). I’m not sure you can say that about any other major program during that span. Certainly not Notre Dame. When things go wrong, they go horribly wrong. Bob Davie was the last coach whose teams gave some enthused performances when the chips were down and the dogs were at his heels. Charlie was supposed to be ten times better. I guess we’ll see.

P.S. Lucy Liu is an alumna? Michigan is hottt!

Anonymous said...

Told ya ND didn't belong in your preseason top 25! I'm sure you have shed an appropriate amount of crocodile tears (none) over their failure.

Anonymous said...

Has the Big ten ever been as bad as it is this year? "The Big Ten is overrated" is practically a conditioned reflex for me, but even I have been surprised at how bad the conference is this year.

Every week there are more embarrasments, with Duke, Iowa State, FAU, and Wisconsin struggling to put away The Citadel being the latest.

I seriously think Ohio State is at best equal to South Carolina, but Penn State is the only team that looks to be able to prevent them from running the table in conference.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding. Not to be too fawning or deferential, but this has become my favorite place for substantive, non-quant-jock football analysis.

Anonymous said...


I know it's going to be painful as hell, but at some point you're going to have to provide some type of logical analysis on the Falcons first two game.

With the exception of the first pick in the Minny game, I've been pretty impressed with Joey Ballgame. He manages a game well, seems to have developed a trust in Roddy White and Joe Horn and manages the game well.

I'm surprised at how much the run game has dropped of in one year. We can't have given up entirely on the zone blocking!

Anonymous said...

Ohio State won't win in Ann Arbor this year. They couldn't stop Mike Hart last year and this year they don't have Troy Smith and Ted Ginn to put up 42 points. said...

This won't work in reality, that is what I suppose.