What a Difference One Game Makes: Thoughts on UM vs. Ill, the BCS Race, and Dark Days in Texas

A Bowl Game! And it only took us three overtimes to do it. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

I spent last Friday writing and rewriting a different version of what feels like the same column I have been posting for the past three or four weeks.  It was rambling and emotional and unfocused.  There wasn't much in it that was football related.  I had been beaten down by the season in a remarkably similar fashion to last year.  I just wanted to vent my mounting frustrations at what seemed like the football gods forcing the Michigan fanbase to act out 2009 all over again.  Had "I Got You Babe" magically replaced my phone alarm on Saturday morning, I wouldn't have even batted an eye.  Every day felt like I was Phil Connors stepping out into Punxsutawney.

I eventually scrapped the whole thing.  The last thing the Michigan blogosphere needed was another account of the sadness and despair that this team has heaped upon its fans for the past three years.  Like mom used to teach, if you don't have anything nice to say...

What a difference one game makes.

This week, the fortunes of Michigan's football team feel remarkably different.  The magical sixth win and bowl eligibility has been achieved, and perhaps another year of the great "Rich Rodriguez Offensive Rejuvenation Project" is on the way.  After spending the last four weeks gradually growing sick and tired of the mounting wave of nihilism and distress that washed over the mgoboard, I have been pleasantly surprised to see threads that speak positively about the defense, GIFs that strangely but accurately sum up the two men leading the program, and even more positivity about the defense.  Sure as hell beats 15 "fire richrod" threads a day.

When was the last time any of us felt good about Michigan football in November?

On Saturday the Wolverine offense was electric.  This unit played most of the game in a gear that had yet to be seen this season, and they did it against a defense that was a top 15 unit in the country coming in to the game (that number dropped precipitously after Saturday).  The final numbers speak for themselves:

  • 676 yards of offense
  • 416 passing yards at 10.7 ypa.
  • 257 rushing yards at 4.8 ypc.
  • 246 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns for Roy Roundtree
  • 104 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns for Junior Hemingway
  • The running backs Smith (73 yds, 5.6 ypc), Shaw (44 yds, 4.9 ypc, 3 TDs), and Hopkins (45 yds, 9 ypc,, 1 TD)  all found ways to be effective.
  • Denard Robinson put up 300 yards passing in three quarters

The Wolverine offense put up 67 points despite giving the ball away five times.  The Wolverines also scored four touchdowns and one 2pt conversion with Tate Forcier in the game for an injured Robinson (the definitive statement on Rodriguez sitting Robinson for health reasons is here).  I spent the fourth quarter confused at the announcers who acted like the Wolverine offense was suddenly cooked with Robinson out.  At one point they spent a solid minute arguing that Ron Zook should punt the ball late in the fourth quarter rather than go for a 4th and short attempt to ice the game with a seven point lead.  Anyone who has watched Michigan play this season knew that this was the absolutely worst strategy you could try ("hmmm, lets get the worst unit off the field, and let the best one try and beat us").  Thank you Ron Zook for your predictable and conservative playcalling, it'll be nice to have you around for a while.

Defensively the game looked much uglier than it was.  Nobody is going to celebrate 65 points, 561 yards allowed, and two of the most infuriatingly open halfback wheel routes I have ever witnessed, but when you look at the game as a whole, three important things stand out:

  1. The defense got stops.  The Illini had to punt the ball six times and were held to field goal attempts four times.  That is ten separate times that the defense kept the Illini out of the end zone, and seven times (counting the missed FG) that the defense held Illinois without points on a drive.  When you give the ball away you have to hold the other team out of the end zone, which leads to...
  2. The defense dealt with a number of bad situations.  The offense turned the ball over twice at midfield and twice in Michigan territory while Jeremy Gallon gave the ball away on a fumbled kick return.  Despite having a banner day, the offense didn't do the defense many favors, and the kicking team continually gave the Illini great starting position.  Was this a great defensive performance?  No, but it was as good as it had to be to get a win.
  3. Young players stepped up.  Courtney Avery came up with a great tackle in space on third down that led to a missed FG, and had tight down field coverage on the one perfectly thrown ball of the afternoon, a far cry from some of the down field coverage we have seen so far this year.  Kenny Demens continues to be the anti-Ezeh by flowing to the ball, shedding blocks, and frustrating passing lanes.  Finally, Ray Vinopal, in his second start came up with one of the biggest plays of the game by stoning Mikel Leshoure on a third and short play late in the fourth quarter that forced a punt and set up the Wolverines game tying drive. This defense isn't good now, but the future looks bright because young players like these are getting better as the season progresses.

In the end it was nice that the defense was on the field for the final play.  If any group of players needed to feel good about something after all the crap hurled their way by the fans and media this year, it was the defense.  If they can keep improving over the next few weeks, this offense might be able to make our last two games interesting.

As for the special teams....well, they made a FG so, um, small victory there I guess.  The bad:  other teams are still getting great field position on kick returns, which is frustrating to no end.  Also, Jeremy Gallon.  That is all.

In the end this victory might not mean anything other than win number six in yet another tumultuous season for the Wolverines.  But honestly, after the last two years we can all agree that win number six is reason enough to celebrate.  Fifteen bowl practices FTW!

(For more on the win Saturday, mgoblog is required reading, as is SCM's reaction.  Also Beauford with my favorite picture page of all time.)

--

Elsewhere in college football, one week has done a remarkable job of clarifying the BCS championship race. Oregon and Auburn continue their vicious march to the championship game behind two of the most explosive offenses in the country.  The Tigers barely broke a sweat while running up 48 first half points against Chattanooga, and the Ducks slept through almost the entire first half before reminding Washington that "everything sucks, don't bother".  Oregon still has to weather three frisky challenges: at Cal, home vs. #18 Arizona, and in Corvallis against OSU---never a gimme.  Auburn still has to take care of business against Georgia at home before travelling to Tuscaloosa for the game that has suddenly become the Tide's raison d'etre.  On top of all this the Tigers have to deal with the NCAA, which is like, totally the fault of Urban Meyer, the mainstream media, and bitter MSU coaches. This is all quite possibly a conspiracy perpetrated on the poor followers of Auburn by a secret society that is dead set against Auburn athletics, because, sometimes churches just fund themselves, man.

Outside the prohibitive favorites stand Cinderella and, um, the other Cinderella that is going to be pissed in December when it gets sent to the Humanitarian Bowl.  In the biggest match up of the year that absolutely nobody watched---thanks CBS---#3 TCU dismantled #5 Utah, and by doing so moved firmly into the "first ones left out" position behind Auburn and Oregon.  If one of the top two fall it is very possible that the world ends and fire rains down from on high we see our first even non-AQ team play for the MNC.  Boise State, on the other hand, looks to be left out in the cold yet again this year.

While the small controversy of both TCU and Boise State being denied a chance to participate in the championship game is troubling for the BCS bigwigs, they dodged a major bullet when the looming one-loss challenger fell over the weekend.  Alabama spent the last month slowly climbing back into position to leap into the championship game, and with games against two ranked teams and a cupcake on the schedule before a meeting with Auburn in the Iron Bowl the Tide looked poised to vault ahead of both TCU and BSU and ignite a shit storm the likes of which hasn't been seen since Auburn was denied a chance to play for the MNC in 2004.  Everything was going according to plan for the Tide, except for one little problem:  Les Miles is the wrench that grinds all your plans to a halt.  In his wake he leaves only confusion, sadness, and youtube videos that both capture the beauty of his insanity while trying to somehow make sense of it in the strangest way possible.  Behold:

Les Miles is the most interesting man in the world.

--

For Texas fans this weekend, one game has served to sum up their entire season.  Sometimes you just can't do anything right no matter how hard you try and you might as well just pack it in and wait for the next year because all you are going to do in the meantime is want to claw your eyes out and sum up your feelings in snarky text message form.  Behold, football at its most incompetent:

  • Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert threw five interceptions in the losing effort.
  • This was one more pass than Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein had to throw all game.

KSU ended the game with nine passing yards.  Read that again.  Nine.  9.  Nueve.  Texas ended the game with 272 passing yards, which is coincidentally, two more yards than KSU's offense managed to gain during the entire game.  However, those 270 yards of offense and five takeaways were good for a staggering 39 unanswered points in the first three quarters as the WIldcats rolled the Longhorns and sent the Texas fanbase into dark depths of depression that haven't been reached since the late 90's.  Things are certainly bad in Austin.

Being a Michigan fan for the past three years, I can sympathize.

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