There was once a time--not as long ago as I'd like to think--when I watched Michigan lose and would almost be determined to be upset for at least the next several hours, as if that somehow strengthened my fandom.
The last time I was truly upset about the outcome of a Michigan sporting event was on April 8 of this year, when Michigan lost to Louisville in the national title game. Even that reaction was more due to the fact that the run was over, and that none of us know when Michigan will make it that far again--they don't happen often.
With this Michigan football team, however, there is no surprise. If moisture is the essence of wetness (and wetness the essence of beauty, then the element of surprise is the essence of the panoply of emotions instilled in the watcher of college sports. The Appalachian State loss was so crushing, of course, because no one saw it coming. On the other end of the spectrum, the victory against Florida that same year was exciting for the very same reason.
Meanwhile, this team has me flatlining; the closest I get to something real is a cringe as Devin Gardner takes yet another sack or Fitzgerald Toussaint collapses under an avalanche of defenders. Other than that, my viewing of Michigan football since the Akron and UConn games has consisted of resigned nodding with the occasional secretive fist pump when Devin Funchess or Jeremy Gallon catch a pass.
Michigan is nine games into its season, and surprise has long since left town, taking its relative emotion with it. Nothing that happens in these games now elicits much of a response, because the same things continue to happen over and over again. Honestly, writing these things has become more and more of a struggle, which is not always the case when a team is losing.
The responses to basically all of Michigan's ills fit under two potential categories: 1) give it time and 2) fire Coach [insert name]. Neither helps Michigan right now. Will the Wolverine offensive line--not to mention Devin Gardner and the current freshmen tailbacks--improve enough to make the offense at least consistently average? I don't know, but my gut tells me we'll see a lot of the same, whether Al Borges is retained or not.
All over various corners of the Michigan Internet, you can see people starting to ask the questions about recruiting: Are the players just not that good? Were they overrated?
After all, that does happen, but typically not on such a large scale. The more discomfiting question is: Is these coaching staff adequately developing these guys? Or, if they aren't there yet, how long will it take?
This is of course where things start to get murky and the fan's personal biases take over. I would be lying if I said my faith in the staff, from top to bottom, hasn't take several serious hits this season. I haven't felt this way since 2008, but I'm just hoping Michigan survives the rest of this season in a respectable fashion, gets it over with and moves on to the offseason.
One more win would be nice, two somewhat surprising and three a miracle. But, as I've said before, it's not really about wins and losses this season any more.
As for the game itself, the offense continues to be what it has been: a sieve seemingly incapable of adjusting to any externalities while oblivious to the fact that the opponent was in on it the whole time. Given Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory's comments after the game, it was like what USC players were saying about the Michigan offense following the 2004 and 2007 Rose Bowls.
Gardner finished a respectable 18-of-27 for 198 yards and one touchdown. However, instead of throwing interceptions, Gardner has been taking sacks. After taking a whopping nine sacks last week, Gardner took seven this week. Disappointingly, a number of them seemed to be straight up coverage sacks; it's often hard to tell what's going on in the secondary, but Michigan's receivers did not seem willing or able track back to help their scrambling quarterback.
Fittingly, Michigan is tied with Florida in sacks allowed this season with 26 apiece (good for 105th in the country).
On the ground, Michigan's longest run of the day went for seven yards (Derrick Green and Gardner each had one of those). Although Green finally showed an ability to at least fall forward for a couple of yards, that is a relatively tiny development amid a roiling sea of dysfunction. Toussaint, meanwhile, carried it nine times for a net of six yards; at this point, I'm well past where Spencer Hall was this weekend, Tweeting out passages of Blood Meridian during Florida's loss against Vanderbilt. I'm past it because I am not under any illusion that things will change.
Although the offensive line has gotten much of the blame simply for not moving people (or even finding the right people to block at times), a big part of the problem is sheer numbers. You don't need to be Space Coyote to know that when you continue to run against nine in the box, you won't find much success; the only situation in which this is maybe untrue is if you have Adrian Peterson. Michigan does not have Adrian Peterson.
Outside of Michigan's beautiful touchdown drive to open the second half, the Wolverines had very little success. Michigan's 3-of-15 mark on third down tells most of the story there.
The offense continues to be an utter mess; the fact that Michigan heads on the road this weekend honestly shouldn't even matter given how the unit performed at home this past weekend. When your offense can't score after the defense recovers fumbles at the opponent's 26- and 33-yard lines, you know the defense is roughin' it like Tom Hanks, without a Wilson with whom to talk.
Defensively, Greg Mattison's side of the ball continues to be what it has been since he showed up in Ann Arbor: good, not great. Valiant, but not enough to win a game by itself. That's okay, because few defenses are that good.
More often than not, 17 points allowed by the defense should be good enough for a Michigan team to win most games.
Minus the somewhat puzzling decision to not start Jarrod Wilson (who has somewhat surprisingly been one of Michigan's better defenders this season, along with Desmond Morgan), the defense did what it does. The Wolverines did hold Nebraska to just 3.0 yards per carry, but Michigan had all sorts of trouble knowing what to do on option plays, whether it was Frank Clark --who has notably had issues with this in the past--or Cam Gordon, or whoever, Michigan's defense looked like it did against Air Force last season.
The bad news for Michigan is that they'll see more of that against Northwestern and to close the season against Ohio State (although I don't even think the Buckeyes will need to get even that fancy to move the ball against Michigan's defense).
Michigan is credited with one sack (Cam Gordon for 13 yards) and two quarterback hurries. With that said, for this game, as will be the case the rest of the season, run defense will be the order of the day, and the pass rush concerns will move to the backburner until the bowl game.
On the bright side, James Ross made some nice plays and Joe Bolden, to my untrained eye, seemed to have a better showing than he has in recent weeks. Michigan's top five leading tacklers in this one were all linebackers. Speaking of, Jake Ryan tallied five solo tackles, including one tackle for a loss of two. He's not there yet, but he's getting there. If Michigan is going to have any sort of shot at keeping it a game against Ohio State, let alone grabbing wins at Northwestern and Iowa, the Wolverines will need Ryan to continue his march to his 2012 form.
All in all, this team has simply gone on to confirm what Michigan fans knew to be true after Akron/UConn but didn't want to believe: this squad is just not very good.
For all of Northwestern's struggles, there is little reason to believe Michigan will find a way to win, even in about as friendly a road environment as there is in the Big Ten. Michigan hasn't won at Iowa since 2005, and we all remember what happened there two years ago. Ohio State, well--let's talk about that later.
If you're looking for answers, you're out of luck. The cavalry isn't coming.