So while I was on hiatus, Michigan, like, played some football and stuff. A quick rundown:
Penn State: Every season, my friends and I choose one away game to attend, and this year, State College was our destination of choice. Here's what you need to know about State College, PA: it's in the middle of nowhere; it's really, really white, save for the mandatory smattering of Asians who matriculate at centers of higher learning throughout the United States; it's filled with mostly nice, completely paranoid college-football fans who either don't read and watch television much or just don't know how to assess football teams (you wouldn't believe how many fans insisted that a Nittany Lion win over Michigan would have sewn up a BCS berth); it seems to be a town long afflicted by identity theft, what with the constant need to remind everyone that "[Th]e[y] Are...Penn State," as though anyone cares or thinks that the cheer is good (it's not--it's basically the worst one in all of sports); and it is a place of moderate fun, far better than the affront to college towns known as "South Bend," but far worse than Madison, WI and even Eugene, OR.
As for the game, the big fear going in was that in the absence of Mario Manningham, the Michigan offense would become a boring, predictable, relatively inert one-dimensional abortion of football. It sort of looked that way early on as the teams traded punts, but Michigan emerged as a methodical unit that, thanks to a defense that killed two quarterbacks and completely neutered an already only semi-potent offense, was strangely effective despite the modest scoring effort. In typical Lloyd Carr fashion, a failure to get some first downs and a late Penn State TD led to some end-game anxiety, but PSU wasn't going the length of the field with a third-string QB against the UM defense.
Iowa: More of that Mike DeBord football vs. seemingly inferior opponents: run into stacked fronts, especially on first down; throw as though someone put a gun to your head and forced you to do so; avoid stretching the field because it would make it easier to run and because the only guy on your team who really can is hurt; and let the defense continue to be a god-body unit. The major melodrama of the week was the legal limbo of Adrian Arrington, as it was speculated that he might be held out--with Mario already a no-go, OMG!--due to an outstanding violation stemming from a domestic dispute. As it turned out, Adrian played, caught a bunch of balls, and may or may not have done something bad. He hasn't started, but has played significant snaps, for the past two weeks, so who knows?
Also notable was that the UM game appeared to be the functional end of the Iowa season, as the Hawkeyes defense looked fantastic in defeat...and the team then fell apart, losing to Northwestern (!) and Wisconsin at home. Not Kirk Ferentz's best work, but hardly a full repudiation of his reputation for great coaching. You go win 30 games in three years in Iowa City.
Northwestern: Just an ugly game, thanks to some mounting, nagging injuries; some execution errors; the Mike DeBord Make Our Fans Hate Us offense; and, oh by the way, the mid-Fall Midwest version of a monsoon--swirling winds, chilling rain falling sideways, and weather too warm for snow but just cold enough for everyone to be miserable. The offense looked as though it had regressed, but the defense was, again, fantastic. Surprise, surprise.
Ball State: A few years ago, this was going to be a bye week. But then the NCAA moved to a full-time 12-game schedule, major teams scrambled to find patsy opponents for one more home game, and Michigan wound up playing a MAC team during Week 10 of the season. They also treated it as a bye, anyway, playing the second-string defense for large swaths of the second half once going up 31-12. Mario Manningham was back, however Michigan stuck to the ground, mauling Ball State for more than 300 yards, with Mike Hart and Brandon Minor going over 100 yards. A lack of focus coupled with a lack of experience left the second-team defense vulnerable to a come back, and thus Ball State made it a close game, falling 34-26 thanks to Charles Stewart and Johhny Sears each surrendering long touchdowns before the real defense came back in for a somewhat enthused goal-line stand that kept Ball State from really threatening.
What it all meant:
- The big item is the offense. If you view this Michigan football season as a cohesive narrative whose conclusion will ultimately and directly draw upon what has and has not been seen so far, you have to be heartened by the Michigan offense that was "on display" during the middle month of the season. Just as it did against Central Michigan and Vanderbilt in the opening weeks of the year, Michigan did exactly what was required to beat its opponents, establishing the run--always its top priority--and little else, thereby "saving" wrinkles and special plays for an opponent like OSU. Personally, I find this method of offense to be abhorrent: it allows lesser teams to stay in games, it provides little margin for execution error, and it fails to fully seize upon advantages that might come with a superior level of talent. A DeBord proponent might point out that his system perfectly complements a dominant defense, but I'd point out that: a) to presuppose a stalwart defensive effort in every game is how UM has lost far too many games in the past; b) asking the defense to routinely rise up is a heavy burden, week after week; c) a team wastes chances to improve upon trouble areas and develop depth when it aims to just get by.
- Against Indiana, Michigan showed more formations and threw more on first down than it had in the preceding month, a welcomed divergence from the usual stretch-play left.
- Kevin Grady should either become a fullback or, like, get better. In recent weeks, he's looked like no better than the fourth-best RB (relative to Hart, Jackson, and Minor), and now almost halfway through his collegiate career, he can fairly be labeled as a disappointment. Reputed to be a powerful runner with nimble feet and good vision, Grady has shown little of any of those attributes as he runs into the line and regularly fumbles.
- If there is a better linebacker in the country than David Harris, I haven't seen him. Harris reads plays so well that he is regularly blowing up a run or snuffing out a screen; he's a sure tackler; and he has led by example so well this year.
- If Carson Butler could a) catch, b) not fumble, and c) not get called for a penalty at least once a game, he'd be the next Antonio Gates. He really runs well and has a way of getting open.