#18 Michigan 28, #10 South Carolina 33: Shadows and Dust

USA TODAY Sports

Amid the whirlwind of nostalgia was an excellent football game that Michigan just happened to lose in disheartening fashion. It was an effort to be proud of, but, in the end Michigan fell just short one more time to cap a season replete with frustrating moments.

You enter the arena for the last time, dust swirling and converging in clouds like conspiratorial cadres. The sod is familiar but foreign; you slip and fall. On the ground, you wonder if that shadow is really yours.

It's a homecoming and a valediction wrapped up in one.

The place is one of welcoming, but somewhere sits a sign, at the end of the road --but not a road, because the path behind you was never really a road but a byzantine series of cuts and seeming impossibility-- that does not bear words. Behind it is a vast emptiness, and so words aren't needed. You infer.

Life, sports, everything else, a series of infinite permutations whittled down to one. "Want a fry?" someone asks you, and sometimes you reach in a grab the one superfry in ever order. Other times, you grab the measly, stunted, vaguely green one.

Sometimes your friend tackles you for no reason, takes your lunch on his way up then just stands there menacingly. This person is: a) not your friend and b) Jadeveon Clowney.

As the year went on, it became harder and harder to write about this team, not because the love for this team or the coaches or anything else declined. Rather, the constant march toward this end, marked by four (and now five) difficult losses, seemed to intermittently throw dirt on the memories. It's like watching a movie you once enjoyed as a kid and realizing that some of those jokes are in fact dirty and now you have this information that you have to incorporate into a greater "legacy" of that thing in your mind.

The last pass fluttered harmlessly to the turf. The shadows that had populated the field for over three hours departed, some of them for good.

The Offense

Well, that was naturally how this season would end: the defense failing to come through as the offense, backed by a solid, imaginative and largely unpredictable gameplan, gave Michigan more than a fighting chance to win the game.

First, I need to apologize to Al Borges for doubting him in the preview post (and in my own mind in the weeks leading up to the game). It's not as if Borges provided much reason to be optimistic after the second half of the Ohio State game, but even some of the most cynical folks within the Michigan fanbase have to admit that Borges called a nice game.When Michigan failed, it was typically because Devin Gardner, who at times played as if he had bees in his helmet, simply missed wide open receivers. I know I know, the "execution" excuse is not one that people like hearing, but it's true.

Sadly, it seems as if Borges had a 2008 Cap One Bowl DeBord moment in that he seemed to finally have figured out how to use Denard and Devin in tandem. Gardner did not put up a great stat line --18/36, 5.9 YPA, 214 yards-- but he did come through with two huge touchdown passes to Jeremy Gallon. Luckily for Michigan, both Gardner and Gallon will be back next year. At this point, concerns about Gallon's height should be cast to the wind; the guy can play, in addition to being from the Nate Robinson School of Short Guys Who Can Jump Outrageously High.

Thomas Rawls was shelved completely in this game, opening the door for Justice Hayes to pick up a couple of carries. Maybe this is nothing, but it could also be a sign of things to come in 2013 and beyond. In any case, Michigan will need Hayes to progress and demonstrate the talent that made him a fairly touted recruit.

Borges didn't hamfistedly, for the most part, attempt to run from under center either. Vincent Smith got just six carries: two were solid gains of six yards, one was a waving-the-white-flag 3rd & 22 run, two others didn't do much and the last one was of course Clowneyocaplypse. Throw in a reception and your standard blocking efforts and this is your ideal Vincent Smith usage level.

Despite not being a threat to throw, Denard racked up 100 yards rushing on 23 carries, threatening to go the distance on a couple of different runs. Leading up to the game, I wondered if Denard could be our Andre Ellington, and he was exactly that. This is all the more remarkable given the fact that Denard had not been used as a traditional running back until the Iowa game.

In a hypothetical alternate universe, it would be interesting to see how things would have played out had Michigan used Denard like this all season. Again, this universe is decidedly alternate and hypothetical, but perhaps such a world featuring a QB/WR/RB Denard would have allowed the Wolverines to mitigate what was clearly not a vintage Michigan offensive line.

Even today, despite going up against possibly the best defensive line in the country (easily in the top five), Borges and Co. managed to squeeze a semblance of a running game out of this offense even while Michigan struggled to run the ball against Big Ten defenses far less talented than this USC D.

Regarding what was the most important matchup of the game, nobody will remember anything about this game other than Clowney's destruction of poor Vincent Smith, but Lewan for the most part held his own --and even sometimes dominated-- Clowney. Clowney made very little impact on the game until that big hit; if there was any doubt about Lewan's decision to enter the draft, it was obliterated after this performance. A couple big hits and zero sacks for Clowney equals a great day for Taylor Lewan's wallet.

If there is any criticism to make here, it's that Borges got a little too enamored with the deep pass (i.e. the Rex Grossman Offense), as he's been wont to do. However, after years of people complaining about the conservatism of Michigan's offensive playcalling, I don't see how people can turn around and bemoan this too (they will and have, but whatever). Additionally, Gardner is the one doing the passing, not Borges; he demonstrated some pocket savvy during the regular season, but seemed tentative when it came time to either run or throw it away when there was nothing there.

I thought there was no way Michigan got into the 20s, but they did exactly that, scoring 28 on a defense that had been giving up 17.4 ppg. Michigan scored more points on the Gamecock D than everyone on USC's schedule save Georgia, Florida and Tennessee.

There will be time to extrapolate and predict what this performance means for Borges and the offense heading into the 2013 season, but, for now, I believe that this game was an unequivocal success.

The Defense

As despondent as the end of the Denard era makes me feel, the fact that the defense played like this against a team that probably should not have looked as explosive as it did. In the preview, I said:

I feel pretty good about Raymon Taylor's ability to cope with USC's perimeter speed, but I'm having some pretty unfortunate flashbacks to that score that Courtney Avery gave up early in the Alabama game.

Well, that was proven incorrect almost immediately. Somehow, Raymon Taylor allowed Damiere Byrd to scoot past him down the left sideline despite giving the latter at least a 10-yard cushion. I'm not sure if Byrd's speed shocked Taylor, who is not exactly slow himself, but it was not an auspicious start to say the least, and sadly was not the end of the evisceration of Michigan's secondary.

Ace made this point and I think it holds water: Kenny Demens' injury was a big hit to Michigan's coverage in the middle of the field. Despite seeming like your typical Big Ten thumping middle linebacker, Demens has typically been very good in coverage. Sans Demens and, of course, J.T. Floyd, what was an elite Michigan pass defense (statistically, at least, insert comment about the dearth of quality B1G quarterbacking) gave up over 200 yards passing.*

Connor Shaw went 18/26 at 8.6 YPA, a pair of touchdowns and zero interceptions. Perhaps more frustrating is the fact that talented backup Dylan Thompson came in and went 7/10 for 110 yards on 11.7 YPA, including a touchdown score in the second quarter as well as the final, game-winning pass to a depressingly wide open Bruce Ellington.

Putting these two teams on the same field underscored something that we already sort of knew but was cast aside because of the generally positive defensive results: Michigan doesn't have very many pure defensive playmakers. In fact, the same is true for the offense. This is essentially completely attributable to the last regime; the situation will get better as players like Taco Charlton, Ondre Pipkins, James Ross, Dymonte Thomas, etc. become the heart of the defense.

For now, Michigan is a bend but don't break unit that doesn't force many turnovers or get to the quarterback much at all unless it involves Jordan Kovacss coming screaming up the middle like a line drive of 98 mile per hour fastball.

This unfortunate reality reared its head down the stretch. On a 2nd & 3 with under a minute to go, Jibreel Black had Shaw within his grasp:

It is plays like that that Michigan has failed to make, plays that make the difference between a pretty good defense and a really good one (e.g. 1997, 2006). South Carolina had so many quality defensive ends that they had a "Rabbit" package --a defensive look featuring four defensive linemen-- while Michigan continues to be unable to get much from its edge guys. Even Jake Ryan, IIRC, missed a shot at the quarterback. Also, am I missing something: did Frank Clark even play? It was impossible to discern player numbers, and the box score doesn't list Clark. He is ostensibly Michigan's best pass rusher. After making a nice impact against Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, it's unfortunate to see Clark pick up just one sack in the 2012 season.

Craig Roh, with four sacks from the SDE spot, was Michigan's most effective quarterback harrier this season, and I'm not sure that anybody would mistake him for a pure pass rusher. Roh had a great career and did a tremendous job with yet another switch, so I am certainly not denigrating his efforts in any way.

Simply put, Michigan's defensive resurgence has been a nice story in 2011 and 2012. Still, let's keep in mind that Michigan rose from almost literally the nadir of college football in every defensive category; almost anything would look better than the defenses of the previous years. In order for Michigan to make the next step defensively, Michigan needs to: a) upgrade its athleticism across the board (which could be said for almost any team, really) and b) start stockpiling pass rushers. Outside of Brandon Graham and LaMarr Woodley, Michigan hasn't had too many elite defensive ends. I don't think it's a coincidence that the SEC's best teams produce the most and best defensive ends of any conference.

Michigan's lack of a pass rush forces Mattison to be aggressive when it might not be ideal to do so (i.e. 2011 OSU game), which naturally will lead to you getting burned from time to time. I would rather have an aggressive guy calling the shots (not that there is anyone would admit to wanting otherwise), but perhaps Michigan should have held back a bit and taken its chances with USC's kicker, who had struggled, missing one field goal and having another one blocked.

But, as they say, hindsight is 20/20. If Michigan stops USC on that 4th & 3 or if Black manages to bring Shaw down, we certainly wouldn't be having this conversation with the former and probably wouldn't with the latter.

*Alabama passed for 199 yards.

Special Teams

There is a sizable portion of the Michigan Internets that is enamored with the notion of the spread punt formation, a concept which ostensibly have prevented something like this from happening:

I've been alerted of the salient data regarding the spread punt vs. the tradition punt formation that Michigan's staff seems married to, and...listen. I get it. Mostly everyone uses the spread punt formation and it does give coverage units an advantage on average. Fewer punts are returned and the yardage is lower, on average, because of the numbers that the spread punt offers on the outside.

With that said, as Michigan fans are wont to do, it is my opinion that this is a largely manufactured and silly complaint. This formation hadn't really hurt Michigan all year, and using an Ace Sanders return for a score as proof is kind of like asking a precocious 5th reader to prove his reading prowess by reading and explaining James Joyce's "Ulysses."

Ace Sanders is good. Again, I have no idea who the players were because of the number issue, but one Wolverine lead the charge and didn't make the play. Here's where everybody is upon Sanders catching Matt Wile's booming punt:

Sanders_1_medium

Theoretically, the Wolverine leading the charge can keep Sanders to the sideline and away from the middle of the field where he can juke his way to daylight. Michigan's got another get closer to the sideline (at its own 45) bearing down in Sanders' line of sight as well, and there's another guy at midfield with a USC blocker attached to him that can maybe be in position to do something if Sanders gets there. Unfortunately, football is not played in theory:

Sanders_2_medium

Naturally, Sanders bisects the guy in front and and 45-yard line guy. Even though Michigan has a trio of guys there in position to make a play. Again, Ace Sanders does what makes him Ace Sanders and bisects the bottom two guys in that trio (Wolverines at the 45- and 47-yard lines). Michigan was doomed to have poor field position anyway, but the Wolverines still have the cavalry coming and a return to around midfield or just a few yards into Michigan territory is still feasible at this point. Guess what:

Sanders_3_medium

A Wolverine appears to get blocked in the back (he's the guy on the ground behind Sanders at the 46), Sanders once again just speeds through the heart of the coverage. At this point, it's not on the coverage formation, it's on the players. It's been a while since Steve Breaston returned punts for Michigan, so maybe people have forgotten, but sometimes guys just make plays. In this instance, Sanders did and Michigan didn't.

Is there are an argument for the spread punt in general? Sure, why not. In the grand scheme of things, especially given the proclivity for daredevilry by this staff, being somewhat antiquated with respect to punt coverage is a small thing to be sweating. Also, I just want to remind people: the 2003 Iowa and Oregon games. Those happened. Remember those? JUST SAYING.

Otherwise, Michigan's return game continued to be non-existent while its placekicking continued to be tremendous. Brendan Gibbons went 2/2 on the afternoon, booting kicks from 39 and 40 yards out to finish the season a sterling 16/18. Matt Wile also booted a 52-yard field goal; Wile has been excellent on kickoffs and whenever he's been asked to punt. Throw in a couple long field goals (if you'll recall, he also nailed a 48-yarder against Michigan State) and it's hard to argue against Wile being one of Michigan's more useful and underrated players.

If Michigan can upgrade its punt return game and get Norfleet to finally break through on kick returns, special teams will become a serious advantage instead of the net nothing that it typically has been this year.

Miscellaneous Minutiae

  • Records. Regardless of what you think of the record-keeping involved in this, Denard Robinson is now your all-time leading rusher among quarterbacks, passing Pat White to finish his career with a whopping 4,495 yards (courtesy of MGoBlue's "Notes" i.e. SUNSHINEEEE BULLETSSSS, for the last time this season :(). No matter what anyone says about his legacy, every last one of those yards had my my breath; after four years, I suppose it's nice to be able to breathe normally again.
  • Gardner. Other than the chronic inaccuracy and the throwing motion that seems to have reverted back to its original form, Gardner was exceedingly jumpy all game, from the beginning all the way to the awkward final toss, where he actually looked behind him before tossing it/getting his shot blocked. This is something that will be worked on through yet another offseason, especially now that he is a quarterback, no questions asked. Assuming the whole medical redshirt thing is happening, two more years of Gardner sounds like a really nice thing.
  • Ellington touchdown. Kovacs did not have a great game. In fact, it might have been his worst game since his freshman season, back when he was getting dusted by Indiana tailbacks. Still, I'm sort of struggling with the final touchdown play: is that on Kovacs? I'm honestly not sure, and I find it hard to believe that Kovacs would be so far behind the play like that. If anybody has an idea how Ellington got down the field on a fly route unimpeded, I'm all hears. It could have been on Kovacs, but I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt without access to a wider angle of the play/who the other guys on the field even are.
  • This is not Lloydball alert No. 37318. Again, Brady Hoke proves that he is not risk-averse in any sense whatsoever. You can add the 4th & 1 Madden-esque QB sneak and the fake punt that wasn't a first down to the list of Hokeian daredevilry.
  • Jerseys. Okay, so I admittedly have consistently mocked the jersey outrage, even when I've personally thought a particular jersey (e.g. the jersey for the 2011 MSU game) to be aesthetically abhorrent. With that said, not being able to make out the numbers on a jersey is just something that should not happen. I didn't have a strong opinion about the jerseys until the game started and I couldn't tell who was on the field when it wasn't completely obvious who the player was.
  • SEC update. After two straight losses to the SEC in bowl games, Michigan now has a 7-5 record against college football's elite conference. Yes, all of these games are in fact meaningless exhibitions, but pride plays no small role in these things...otherwise, Michigan could have very easily laid down and died early on in the proceedings. They didn't, and almost came away with a win against a solid, top 10 squad.
  • Roh. I think Craig Roh deserves recognition. After a shaky start to his start due to complete mismanagement by RR's defensive staff, Roh rallied after a slow start to 2011 to have solid back-to-back seasons under Mattison's tutelage. The fact that I'm not really sure Michigan experienced that much of a dropoff from Ryan Van Bergen at the SDE spot speaks to the quality of Roh's season. He never turned into the pass rushing demon that we thought he might be coming out of high school, but he started 51 consecutive games, passing Jon Jansen's total of 50 for the school record, and gave Michigan a lot of quality football.
  • Clowney. My goodness. Vincent Smith, I sincerely hope you are okay. I'm still in pain for you many hours later. If you ever needed an argument for the self-rectifying nature of sports, that was it. That was a horrible spot in Michigan's favor, and it was insane to see how Clowney set out to fix this error immediately. The scariest part of the whole thing was how he leveled Smith then picked the ball up with his left hand like a bear snatching salmon out of a river. Hey, NFL: have fun with that. Oh wait, he's coming back for one more year of college football. Hey SEC tackles: have fun with that.
  • The end. There will likely be more e-ink spilled about this season before the basketball team gets too deep into the conference schedule, but, for now, I just want to say that I've enjoyed writing all 13 of these game recaps this season. I hope you all have enjoyed reading them. As frustrating as this season was, this is a team and a program still very much worth loving and obsessing over, no matter how unhealthy or unwise that may be. One more time: Go Blue.
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