Certain types of ineptitude are inevitable during coaching changes. At least that's what I've been willing to tell myself. Offensive, defensive, and special teams ineptitude have been Michigan's hallmarks all season. It may seem a little funny to list these units individually, as simply saying the team as a whole is inept would save a few syllables and go directly to the point. But each unit has been inept in it's own unique way. For the offense you've had fumbles, sideline passes, inaccurate throws, injuries, and a lack of a true go-to guy. For the special teams missed field goals, extra points, fumbles, fumbles and more fumbles. For the Defense, the big play.
The result is a 2-7 season, a young team learning on the fly and taking their lumps along the way. God bless them they try harder than any team in recent memory, but all the sweat, tears, and blood can't seem to buy them a win. As Beauford said, I'd be a lot more upset if these kids weren't trying. But they are. And for that I'm grateful.
I wrote this season of the books when Michigan fell to Toledo on a missed field goal that was more like an extra point than a game tying attempt. What I hope to see was that Michigan would continue to compete the way they did against Wisconsin, Utah, and Illinois. And to an extent that hope has been rewarded with effort in every game they've played. These kids are doing everything they can to win. Sometimes they're doing to much and defeating the purpose, but I'll never say they're doing too little.
That's what makes Saturday so hard on me. I saw the effort. But I also saw the dejection, the slumped shoulders, the tears, the exasperation in the eyes of those kids as the trudged into the locker room following the game. They'd left everything on the field. They'd played hard against a team that on paper (even this season) they are head and shoulders above in terms of talent. They'd played to the best of their abilities and still lost. What I saw was a large group of talented young men looking for an answer they weren't going to find.
Along with some good friends, I traveled down to the Purdue game. We tailgated, grilled, drank brew, talked with the locals and watched an offense that hadn't scored more than 27 points in a game all season long suddenly put up 35 points and show signs of actual competency. We even saw Michigan's disastrous special teams unit put one in the endzone. We saw a defense that had given up big play after big play all season long, keep everything in front of it. Everything that had cost Michigan games all season long wasn't present. Everything we'd hoped would get fixed, to some extent, was.
We still lost.
Unfortunately Michigan's true Achilles heel this season has been its defensive production and execution. this weekend promised to be the weekend where Michigan would get on track and hammer an inexperienced quarterback. He'd thrown a total of 17 passes prior to Saturday's game. Yeah. This was the week! Woo!
Instead, Michigan's defensive game plan made him look like a Heisman candidate. Michigan lined up in a Nickel type package the entire game, 3 linemen, 3 linebackers and 5 DBs. This alignment was supposed to keep the mobile and primarily run based quarterback in check by putting more speed on the field. If this makes anyone else's head explode, you're not alone.
I've said this over and over again, and its truth hasn't changed, the defensive line is our strongest unit. Why Shafer continues to insist on limiting their effectiveness by putting only three linemen on the field and depending on Michigan's most inexpeiernced and least talented players to be difference makers at Linebacker and Safety will go down as one of the great mysteries of our time, along side the disapeaance of the Maya, the lone gunman, and what happened to the Sphinx's nose. Instead of pressuring a neophye quarterback, Michigan allowed him all day to pass and run. Instead of blizting the hell out of him, Michigan sat back in the same half ass zone that's been picked apart by every pop warner level quarterback they've faced. We were in three man lines on the goalline for christ's sake.
Our defensive coaching cost Michigan a meaningless game, but a meaningless game that would've given the players and fans a brief respite from a dismal season.
For the first time all season, it was Michigan making the big offensive plays. 45 yards on a sprint to the endzone by Minor. 51 yards on a reception by Stonum. 74 yards on a return touchdown by Odoms. Michigan's offense put up 35 points and didn't turn the ball over once. Sure people can point to the time of possession or the first downs and say Michigan got dominated, but that's not the case. Michigan scored nearly at will against Purdue. Two touchdown drives needed one play. One friggin' play. When the offense needed to score to tie the game they did it in 14 plays (albeit helped considerably by Purdue's defensive stupidity in hacking and taking head shots). But they did. 35 of the 42 points were generated by an offense that finally seemed to click.
This game lies squarely on Shafer's shoulders. His defense just gave up over 500 yards to the 10th rated offense in the Big Ten. FYI, Michigan was 11th. His defense has steadily gotten worse as the offense has improved. His scheming appears completely incapable of dealing with a running quarterback. The defenses are so predictable that a friggin hook and ladder beat Michigan on Satruday. The scheme is so obvious and porous that Purdue marched 73 yards for a score in 54 seconds on 4 plays with under a minute and a half left. He is, for all intents and purposes, a less effective Ron English. And to be honest, if I'd known this defense would turn out this way under Shafer's tutelage, I'd rather have him in charge so that I wouldn't have to see Terrance Taylor on the sidelines for half the defensive snaps.
But Shafer's here to stay, and all the wishing in the world doesn't seem to be changing his scheming and personnel decisions.
So, what are we left with. An offense that is honestly improving, albeit against a bad defense in Purdue. A special teams unit that was a wash (TD return and fumble on the Michigan 14 that turned into a TD). And a defense that finds new, brain warping ways to lose football games. While I am thrilled with the progress that the offense and the special teams units have shown, the failure of the defensive coaching staff to show any ability to teach fundamentals and to play to their personnel strengths boggles my mind.
In a season where I should be encouraged by effort and improvement of the offense, the continued ineptitude of what should be a good defense continues to be foremost in my mind. I want to be encouraged. I do. I want to believe our offense will be able to put these kinds of numbers up next year. And to some extent I do. But regardless of the improvement from week to week on offense, I still see a defense that is completely lost and misguided. Until that gets fixed we're going to see a lot of slumped shoulders among the players and the fans as they filter out of the stadium over these last three games.