Michigan-Ohio State: Anti-Climax

Not a bird, not a plane...Denard. - Jamie Sabau

Michigan fought valiantly in the first half in Columbus, attempting to steal its first win at Ohio Stadium since 2000. Despite some occasionally curious playcalling, the Wolverines had a chance to get that win in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, just as in 2002 against another undefeated Buckeye team, the Wolverines' comeback efforts were stymied by turnovers in the end, leaving an indelibly anti-climactic mark on what has otherwise been a strong two year run for this class of seniors.

Michigan 21 (8-4), Ohio State 26 (12-0)

The final minutes ticked off the clock, one of the most unique situations in sports, where each team and its fans can sit and think about what has happened. The result is set. Not even a faint chance of a comeback exists. The game is over even though it isn't.

For Ohio State fans, an undefeated season was achieved, inevitably leading to some serious extrapolating from Buckeye fans, national media personalities, and yes, even Michigan fans to a certain extent: if Urban could go undefeated in Year 1 with a team that most wouldn't consider in the same league as the teams that surround it in the rankings, then it logically follows that Ohio State will go 324-0 by 2018 or something.

But, that is a worry for another day. We have coaches that are good at what they do; it wasn't too long ago that I was sitting in Ohio Stadium in 2008, watching a Michigan team complete its final death throe during a 42-7 blowout.

Like last year, both teams were off to the races in the first half, connecting on big play after big play en route to a 21-20 halftime score. The Game was there for the taking, precariously balanced on a ledge, begging to pushed in either direction. Drives, games and seasons are full of such inflection points, and none are more charged than these moments, during college football's rivalry week.

To start the third quarter, Michigan failed to convert on 4th down near midfield, a sequence that luckily only led to a Buckeye field goal. On its next drive, Denard Robinson fumbled while carrying the ball with his left hand after taking a Christian Bryant helmet to the ball. Again, Michigan luckily avoided a potential death blow, like a bull avoiding the final strike from a matador experienced enough to deliver the initial strikes but not adept enough to end it all. And so Michigan bled on the dusty coliseum floor, hanging on and hanging on despite all of the elements decidedly being against it.

Two three and outs later, Devin Gardner fumbled at the Michigan 19; again, Michigan avoided the death blow. The defense hunkered down, allowing the Buckeyes only three points. With 6:26 to go, Michigan had a quarter and a half of incompetence behind it with an opportunity to win the game within its grasp.

Dennis Norfleet executed a solid return to the Michigan 41, calling to mind pleasant images of Steve Breaston's return in the 2005 Penn State game leading up the final game-winning drive. After two straight incompletions, Gardner found Jeremy Gallon at the sticks on 3rd & 10 for a first down.

Those 10 yards were the last ones that Michigan acquired in the 2012 regular season. C.J. Barnett intercepted Gardner's pass at the Michigan 49, and the game was over. For all the cathartic release that came from last year's victory, the notion that Michigan has not won in Columbus since a certain signal caller from Brighton led the way is one that hangs around the program's neck like a weighty albatross.


And so we sit at 8-4, reeling from the violent gusts of anti-climax. With a bowl game against an SEC team that is sure to be favored, we have over a month to sit and think about this season and what we might say about the near future of Michigan football.

But for now, as difficult as it may be right now, it is also time to give thanks for what the seniors have been able to go, guiding this program through the darkness and back to respectability. Michigan is in good hands, but every departing senior class leaves behind a body of memory that can never be replicated.

Memories, irreproducible and abstract, risk dissolution if we do not take the time to document them and caretake, like ancient scrolls on display. Carefully blow the dust away and this scroll reads: This was Team 133; remember us, for times were different then.

The Offense

It has been many hours since the final seconds ticked off the clock, and just like after every other loss in the Al Borges era, I've had adequate time to think about what happened. It is a good thing that I write these posts on Monday morning as opposed to immediately after the game; Time is a salve that mitigates the the biological urge to vent in an irrational manner.

After scoring 21 points in the first half, Michigan failed to register on the scoreboard in the second. Beginning with the first series, ending with a decision to go for it on 4th down that I cannot question in theory, the final 30 minutes were disastrous for the Wolverines on the offensive side of the ball. In six second half drives, the Wolverines gained 68 yards and turned it over three times.

With Toussaint out of the game, Michigan's already ineffective running game was forced to lean on Denard Robinson in a way that it hadn't really done before: Denard was thrust into the position of running back without all of the conventions of a running back. In the past, standard iso and off tackle power plays with Denard were accompanied by the threat of a pass. Say what you will about Denard's accuracy, but this threat is a very real one for opposing defenses when the quarterback running the show can take it the distance if you take your eyes off of him for a nanosecond, like an outfielder trying to catch a routine fly ball.

This time, due to the unfortunate circumstances of Toussaint's injury and Denard's supposed inability to throw the ball due to his right army injury (which Denard interestingly contradicted after the game, which, take that for what's it worth). With Denard in the game and Devin out, Michigan might as well have taken the field with a flashing neon sign reading WE ARE GOING TO RUN ARE YOU READY. Given the gentlemanly nature of Big Ten football, this was an admirable gesture but not necessarily one conducive to success on the field.

Once again, I find myself in a difficult position, along with every other person attempting to put conflicting thoughts to words: Al Borges knows more than any of us combined about offensive football. This is undisputed fact. And yet, I find myself wondering why certain things are happening. Rather than wondering why certain plays or decisions were made --like running Vincent Smith on 3rd & 1 into the teeth of a tremendous defensive line (even sans John Simon), not using Denard and Devin at the same time in certain key situations, etc.-- it is more useful to try to ascertain the decision-making structure behind these choices.

There are a few schools of thought. One: perhaps Al Borges, with just about two seasons in his belt as the offensive mind behind an offense featuring Denard Robinson, simply has no other recourse than to go with "what he knows"? This is a bit troublesome, because it implies a basic belief that Vincent Smith can get that one yard despite an entire career that stands as one big contradicting body of data.

Two: this is far less wide-reaching a point, but perhaps Denard wasn't 100% at certain points in the game? Ignoring the fact that he didn't enter the game after his fumble (which we have to assume was due to reaggravation of his treacherous ulnar nerve issue), maybe he just couldn't go? We really have no way of knowing.

Three: again, a less compelling notion than the first one, but perhaps Borges analyzed each individual play in a vacuum and came out with the understanding that whatever he called was the right call in that moment? Again, we really have no way of knowing unless we possess the fundamental understanding of the game that he has, in addition to the ability to combine all of the the factors that come with breaking down a game on the fly (i.e. an offensive coordinator's job). Odds are, you do not possess that faculty (I do not).

Four: this is also troublesome and perhaps indicative of stubbornness, but perhaps Borges took into the account that Michigan had not been able to run the ball effectively with its backs, on third and short or otherwise, but assumed --nay, hoped--that this would be the time that Michigan could finally convert? I don't know, I'm just trying to flesh out all the possibilities, no matter how implausible they may be. It is admittedly a heavily flawed discursive process, but it's all that seems to exist in circumstances such as this.

From a personnel and execution perspective, yes, players need to block and not turn it over and do the things that are out of the coaching staff's control. For all of the issues with Borges' playcalling in the second half --justified or not-- Michigan simply did not make the plays it needed to make, running all the way from the basic imperative to "make plays" to "don't fumble that football." You can certainly argue that Michigan was set up to fail in certain situations, but the simple, unappealing fact is that Ohio State did what it needed to do down the stretch and Michigan did not.

We expend significant amounts of time and energy attempting to break down what can seem like a game based on esoteric sets of knowledge and imperceptible nuances, but the outcome of a given game, whether against Ohio State or UMass, can always be reduced to the same crystallized truths.

Do not turn it over, make something out of nothing when order breaks down and seize upon any opportunities that your opponent offers. Although I do not believe that Michigan's offensive playcalling was exceptional in the second half, the game was there for the taking. As reductive and unsatisfying as it may be, Michigan did not take it.

The Defense

On the bright side, Michigan's defensive brain trust once again came through. After getting ambushed early on, with the Buckeyes once again opting to attack J.T. Floyd, the Wolverines settled down in the second half, giving up only six points despite being put in numerous positions that threatened to break the dam. Unlike the Nebraska game, admittedly a much more extreme example of the offense leaving the D out to dry, the Wolverine defense held its own. A year after getting eviscerated at home by a freshman Braxton Miller, this was a step in the right direction, no matter how much malaise you may or may not be feeling about future matchups against Urban Meyer's Buckeyes.

For all of its defensive success, Michigan came into The Game with only 15 sacks. In this one, the Wolverines managed to get to Miller four times (one each from Frank Clark, Jibreel Black, Jake Ryan and Thomas Gordon), usually delivering bone-crushing blows to the young Buckeye quarterback. On 3rd & 7 at the Michigan 48, Frank Clark delivered what was one of the biggest hits of the season on an opposing quarterback by a Wolverine not named Jordan Kovacs:

2012 Michigan at Ohio State 1st Half Part 1 (via noonkick)

Before the formality that was the final Ohio State drive, Michigan had given up only 133 yards of offense in the second half. The Buckeyes racked up 263 yards of offense in the first half alone. So, victory Greg Mattison. As Chad Henne once opined, "excellence is good." So are halftime adjustments.

With that said, the damage was done in the first half. Miller finished the day 14-18 through the air for 189 yards and a touchdown, good for a shiny 10.5 yards per attempt.

Additionally, Michigan got gashed up the middle all game, an unfortunate development after a season of Will Campbell and Quinton Washington surprising us all by looking like a serviceable to pretty good wall of 600+ pounds of interior beef. Of course, Michigan was keying on Miller pretty significantly, opting for the containment strategy that teams used back in the day when Denard Robinson was still a quarterback [ :( ]. Other than a 42-yard scamper to end the third quarter, Miller only managed 19 carries for 15 yards (and I'm not even sure whether or not ESPN's stats include sacks or not). So, Miller was mostly a non-factor on the ground, which is what you want.

Sure, Carlos Hyde had a day (26 carries, 146 yards, TD), but his long was only 17 yards. There were a couple instances when it looked like he might gallop through the spread out front a la Beanie Wells in 2006, but it never really happened. Michigan absorbed that yardage and remained relatively unscathed, especially after the first half.

When Miller did get loose, Michigan's edge defenders (i.e. Jake Ryan) played it well, delaying until help arrived. Other than the 52-yard strike to Devin Smith at the beginning of the game, Michigan didn't really give up much other than Hyde's output, which was significant but part of the gameplan to a certain extent. There's not much at all to complain about from the defense in this game.

Michigan got to Miller on several occasions, didn't get beat deep after the first time, didn't allow Miller to go all Troy Smith on it and held strong despite being put in some tricky situations by the offense. It was another strong performance for a defense that had a season full of them, even after the losses of stalwarts like Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen.

The only shame is that Michigan wasn't able to pull out a win for a defense that had kept Michigan in every game against teams not named Alabama. The questions surrounding Al Borges' tenure as Michigan's offensive coordinator will continue to loom heading into the offseason (rightly or wrongly), but one thing is certain: Greg Mattison will churn out tough defenses for as long as he is in Ann Arbor, seemingly regardless of the personnel he is given.

Special Teams

Last week, I made the fairly obvious statement that a special teams derp could very easily swing the outcome of the game. On the bright side, Michigan's special teams avoided such an error after several games in which Michigan had botched a punt return or two (although it never really hurt them). On the not so bright side, Ohio State's Philly Brown did fumble a punt, leading to a Michigan touchdown in the second quarter, but it was not the difference in the game.

Otherwise, Michigan did not attempt a field goal. Ohio State's Drew Basil only attempted six field goals coming into the game, making four. Naturally, he doubled his season output to date, going 4-5 on the day.

As usual, Michigan didn't get much from its return game save for a decent 27-yarder from Dennis Norfleet to set up the final drive. After an auspicious start, Norfleet ended his first season without a score. Luckily he has three more seasons worth of opportunities to get one, and it's safe to assume that he will (once he learns not to simply run up the backs of his blockers).

Miscellaneous Minutiae

  • This Week In "Jake Ryan Drinks Your Milkshake, He Drinks It Up!" After some relatively quiet outings of late, Ryan came up big on Saturday. He tallied nine tackles (six solo), two tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and a sack. On the heels of the aforementioned outings, I have no idea where Ryan stands vis-a-vis All-American honors, but it's safe to say that next year should be an even better one for Michigan's resident milkshake pilferer and havoc wreaker.
  • Denard. That was his second to last game. Again, that was his second to last game. That is all.
  • Speaking of...Denard surpassed Brad Smith on the list of rushing yards by a quarterback. Denard needs just 85 more yards to tie Pat White for first place (note: I'm not sure what the final word re: last year's Western Michigan game is as far as whether or not those stats count, but who cares).
  • 21 plays for 60 yards. That was the second half for Michigan. I'm not sure that this is: a) news to you or b) needs further explication. Michigan loses at least three starters on the offensive line this offseason, four if Lewan enters the draft. Although Michigan is fortunate to have officially found its quarterback for 2013, things might not be getting any easier on the offensive side of the ball, especially without Denard's playmaking ability to fall back on when all else fails. So, "I can't wait until Denard graduates" troglodytes, you will soon have your wonderful ideal scenario in play next season, i.e. a world in which Michigan doesn't have one of the top two or three pure playmakers it has ever had in its long history.
  • SUNSHINEEEEE BULLETS. The MGoBlue "Notes" don't have quite the same effect after a loss like this, but I for one am attempting to seize upon even the faintest ray of light under the circumstances. Here's one: with Denard's absurd 67-yard touchdown run at the end of the first half, he surpassed Chad Henne on Michigan's list of most touchdowns scored, setting the bar at 91. His 91 scores rank second in Big Ten history, trailing only Purdue's Drew Brees. Memories, man. Memories.
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