One of the hard things about a coaching change is managing your expectations.
Logically, going into this season I knew Michigan would likely be a 6-6 team. Not good. Not terrible. Emotionally, it’s not quite so simple. This is Michigan. You have no choice but to have high expectations. It’s a God given right that we should win every game, regardless of whether that is true or not. And as the start of this season drew nearer and nearer, my expectations ballooned, my confidence doubled and logic was invited to take a running jump onto a freeway.
As a result of Michigan's first game of the season, I must admit, my emotions got the better of me. Yelling. Screaming. Generally acting like an idiot as Michigan flailed helplessly at a team they normally should have beaten. But it’s tough to keep those emotions in check when what you’re watching on the field is so much different than what you’ve seen before, but at the same time sadly too familiar. Weren't the days of bungled running plays supposed to be in the past? Wasn't this supposed to be a run first pass second offense? Wasn't the defense supposed to be better than that? Didn't I ask these questions after game one last year?
While there are more than enough positives to take away from the Utah game to buoy me until Michigan’s match up with Miami, the negatives displayed by this young team are more than enough to dampen my overly optimistic mood coming into this past Saturday. The tough thing is, how do you express these concerns without being oblivious to the fact most of the starters are quite literally high school kids, playing in their first game? Or how do discuss the positives without ignoring the glaring mistakes committed by both players and coaching staff? No matter how you list these thoughts you will be perceived a certain way by those both inside and out of the program. A Kool-Aid drinker, a blind optimist, an overly negative jackass, or someone who wanted Les Miles over Rodriguez.
So, before I get into the game, let me say this. I have faith in Coach Rodriguez. I believe Michigan will improve as this season goes on, but I do not think this is going to be a particularly pretty season to watch. Is this an eight win team? After Saturday’s display, not a chance. I said going into this season six wins were realistic, only to get swept up into Barwismania and the overly optimistic spring chatter surrounding the defense. Coach Rodriguez will get this turned around. However, it’s going to be just as tough as we originally feared.
And one of those initial fears, the one that always docks good team 2 games in a preview and a bad team 6 games, the quarterback, was just as bad as we could've imagined. Michigan's improvement or stagnation will be determined by the play of two quarterbacks whom we know next to nothing about, what what we do know, ain't pretty.
This was supposed to be a two player race. They were a hair's breath apart. Hell a starter wasn't announced until game time, though it was clear the coaching staff favored Sheridan. Unfortunately, it was clear on Saturday the coaching staff bet on the wrong pony. Redshirt sophomore Nick Sheridan looked every bit the over matched former walk-on we originally thought he would be. His passes were wobbly, his command of the offense shaky, and his ability to move the offense down the field was non-existent. While Sheridan was not good, and by no means should be under center against Miami, a healthy helping of the blame for his performance must be laid at the feet of Rodriguez and OC Calvin McGee.
Prior to Saturday Rodriguez and McGee sang Sheridan’s praises as the quarterback better suited to run the offense. Quicker feet. Good reads. Arm not made out of Jell-O. But let's be clear, Sheridan’s main advantage over 6’6” Steven Threet was mobility. He had it, Threet didn’t. At least that's what we heard or saw from the limited film available. But it was clear Sheridan wasn't going to beat you with his arm. He was supposed to be a caretaker, someone who could run, pick up a first down with wits and feet. Someone who could throw a fade to the far sideline, but wasn't going to scare you down the field. In short, a run first quarterback.
But when the game arrived McGee and Rodriguez devised an offensive game plan that failed to play to any of his strengths and exploited his deficiencies. Sheridan threw 19 passes compared to just 5 runs, one of which was a sack. Though Sheridan had just one pass picked off, he easily could’ve left the game with 3 picks, including an INT just before Michigan’s first touchdown that was luckily called back due to Utah’s incredible knack for committing penalties at inopportune times. Even though the play calling at the end of the first half called for a downfield pas, Sheridan should've had the sense to throw the ball away rather than into triple coverage. And if he was going to throw it downfield at least not to put it in the air long enough for the cornerback to leave the stadium, grab a hot dog, and return in time for the pick.
But I can't blame Sheridan for that. He did what he was called upon to do, and that in and of itself is admirable. However, the game plan employed by rodriguez and McGee was far better suited to a pure passer like Threet than a mobile yet underarmed Sheridan. Intead of zone reads, Sheridan was called upon to air out post routes and screens. Neither of which he threw well. His running ability was equally suspect, showing all escapability of the statuesque Threet while managing only 2 yards net rushing on those 5 carries. Quite simply it was apparent that the coaching staff was enamoured more with what they felt Sheridan should be able to do rather than what he could.
While the offensive line was not particularly effective, it was nowhere near as bad as I thought it would be. The run blocking was suspect at best, but the line was adequate enough to allow Sheridan, and later Threet, time to throw. Further, there were some lanes available for the runningbacks. One of the day's best runs came from a Brandon Minor up-the-gut dash that resulted in more than a twenty yard gain. It was shocking that Michigan chose to challenge Utah's ends, the veteran part of its defense, rather than its raw interior more often. But it didn't, and instead attempted to move the ball through the air with a quarterback ill suited to do it, or to pressure Utah's veterans on the outside than its neophytes up the gut.
This is not to say that blame for the loss is strictly confined to the offense. A healthy helping must also be placed on the plate of DC Scot Shafer and the Michigan defense. Whatever 4-3 zone he employed in the first half simply did not work, and allowed Brian Johnson free reign over Michigan's secondary as it floundered in a zone better suited to Jim Herrmann's or Ron English's defensive confusion. I spent a majority of the first half scratching my head, throwing things, and yelling "Get out of that ---ing zone, you jackass!" The defense was passive. Slow. Reactionary rather than the proactive style we'd been promised.
Whether Stevie Brown, Donovan Warren or Morgan Trent were blowing angles on the same slant pattern that torched them the year before, or hopelessly boxed back by the called zone coverage, the first half was hideous. Giving up a first and goal on the 3-19 from the Utah 44 was simply inexcuseable (see first half, 2007 v. Appalachian State). More frustrating, the line got no penetration in the first half. There were no effective blitzes. The linebackers, with the notable exception of Ezeh who is awesome, looked lost. It was brutal.
While the offense took until the instertion of Steven Threet midway through the third quarter to show life, thankfully the defense awoke, showed the ability to adapt, and gave its offense the chance to win the game. Key to this second half rennassiance was Brandon Graham, who spent his entire second half terrorizing the Utah backfield. He and Will Johnson deserve ample credit for an outstanding second half effort that nearly turned the game around. But while Shafer was culpible for Michigan's poor first half scheming, he also deserves credit for adapting and stifling Utah the second half. Switching to a nickle package and bringing as many players as possible in the second half, Michigan looked every bit the defense we expected it to be. As a result, I have faith Shafer will engineer a commanding defense by season's end.
It remains to be how the offense will respond after a horrific showing at home. It wasn't until the 10 minute mark of the 3rd quarter that Sheridan was finally pulled in favor of Threet, and while the offense didn't respond immediately, it was only under Threet's watch that it showed any signs of life. With the legitimat threat of a downfield pass finally in Michigan's backfield, Utah's safeties backed off enough to allow Brandon Minor some running room. The threat of an accurate pass also allowed Sam McGuffie enough space to waltz into the endzone untouched. Threet's touchdown bomb to Junior Hemmingway was a thing a beauty. Even though Threet Henne'd the two point conversion, rifling the ball to high and too hard for Toney Clemons to pull in, it did hit Clemons in the hands and more often than not, Michigan ties the game on that play.
What Threet brought to the game was life. Energy. A presence. The thoguht that something might damn well happen to shake you out of your seat and cheer. And while he didn't deliver the comback win we all hoped he would, he was pretty good and most importantly, didn't turn the ball over. For a quarter and a half, he made his case to be Michigan's starter against Miami. I think he earned it.
Despite the loss, Michigan found five things that will carry it the rest of the year:
1. It's defense - Shafer now knows this group is better when the switch is turned to "kill" rather than "watch."
2. A quarterback - Mobile or not, and he's more mobile than I thought he was, Threet should be Michigan's starter. He has a better command of the offense, and if this is going to be a Tulane style Rodriguez offense with a passing emphasis to alleviate the deficiencies in the line and the running game, he's the only player on the roster that can do it.
3. Brandon Minor should be starting - Blocking. Running. Having a positive impact outside of one play. Minor was the best of the backs. While I'm going to carry a grudge about his fumble until he makes it through a full game without coughing up the ball, he's still our best back based on what he can do now versus what he will do in the future.
4. Obi Ezeh is for real, son - 15 tackles, a pick, 1.5 TFL. Best player on defense all day. He's just going to get better.
5. The line - I thought they were going to be horrid. 9 sacks horrid. They weren't. this is a passable unit that if it stays healthy will get Michigan through this year with a smidgeon of diginity. I'll wait till I see Brian's UFR of the offense, but I thought they were decent.
I know we'd all have preferred a win. But Michigan was what we thought it would be. Young. Inexperienced. Mistake prone. It will get better. They will compete hard the entire game. The defense will be very good. They just need time, which is fortunately a luxury they have with Miami of Ohio coming to town. This team should win that game based on their second half performance. But past that game, well, I can't say. We'll make that call after September 6th.
For right now we must take it all in. Think about it. And find ways to manage our expectations based on what we have seen.