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The Aftermath

Here is a suggestion: Go to London. That's what I did last week, and it was phenomenal--the sights, the beer, the odd spectacle of Americans running around a British grocery store trying to make Thanksgiving dinner. I recommend it highly.

It's also a nice remedy for the now annual post-OSU-loss hangover. Never has a Michigan football game left me so ambivalent, so let's take a walk...

I think the obvious takeaway from last weekend was that despite all of the rationalizations offered by the cockeyed optimists who populate the interwebs and represent themselves to be the true Michigan fans, there is no three-star substitute for five-star talent: Michigan's defensive-back recruiting failures were sadly on display against the Buckeyes. The Wolverines simply do not have the roster required to defend a well-run spread like the one that they've refined in Columbus. Justin King, Victor Harris, Taylor Mays, Jai Eugene, Myron Rolle, Antwine Perez, Nic Harris, A.J. Wallace, Darrin Walls--that's a lot of speed and ability that Michigan has recruited and failed to land in recent years. And when that happens, you're left with consolation prizes like Johnny Sears and Charles Stewart and Brandon Harrison and Morgan Trent defending wide receivers who are better at getting open than the DB's are at covering.

I thought that was the key difference in the game--Michigan's personnel didn't allow it to play the way that it needed to. Troy Smith was getting hit, and in the second half, the blitzes were limiting his time, but Smith wasn't sacked much and he always had options open because Michigan was covering receivers with linebackers and slow safeties or giving OSU wide receivers ten-yard cushions for fear of getting beaten deep. If Michigan has defensive backs who can run and cover better--even for literally two more seconds--then maybe Smith has less time, gets sacked more, and the OSU offense is forced to keep more blockers along the line.

Next year, when QBs are evading pressure in the backfield, screens aren't getting blown up as well, and running backs are getting to the second level more often, we'll see the ugly result of bad recruiting again, as the inadequate linebackers will be on full display. I hope you all savored David Harris and the healthy Prescott Burgess, because Chris Graham missing 75% of his tackles, John Thompson defending the pass, and everyone else (save for pass rusher Shawn Crable) looking inexperienced is not going to be all that pretty. I mean, what have you seen from Brandon Logan? What are you expecting from Cobrani Mixon and Quentin Patilla? Will the LBs ruin the team? Maybe/probably not, but when it faces an opponent like OSU--one with talent than can exploit a weakness and smart coaches who know what they're doing--you're going to wonder why Michigan didn't offer a scholarship to someone like Brian Cushing much earlier.

Also key was that Michigan played its worst defensive game of the year. Jim Tressel, his staff, and the OSU criminals deserve credit for their preparation and execution--they were better, and they were smart to spread out Michigan. But they didn't make Michigan miss tackles in the backfield; they didn't make Ryan Mundy run into Jamar Adams; they didn't make Shawn Crable go helmet to helmet on Troy Smith. (And for the record, Ryan Mundy has yet to play one good game at Michigan. Just an FYI.) Michigan's defense was not its usual self, in part thanks to the OSU scheme, but also in part thanks to unfortunate personnel, in part thanks to delayed adjustments, and in part thanks to generally poor play.

All of that said, Michigan only lost by three and was moving the ball well. As uncomfortable as I am with Mike DeBord's general football philosophy, and as disappointing as it is that watching a number of other teams makes it clear how absent creativity is on the Michigan coaching offensive staff, I must concede that in the year's big games, DeBord's schemes have worked well. Against OSU, the commitment to the pass on the opening drive meant that there was room to run, and Michigan did well enough to score five touchdowns and a field goal. Chad Henne has emerged as a quarterback in whom you can place your trust in a big game, and Mike Hart was getting 6 yards every time he touched the ball. Manningham and Arrington were both close to 100 yards receiving, and the ball was spread around nicely.

Unfortunately, some bad coaching, as always, hurt the Michigan offense in a game that was not at all about defense. For years, Michigan has been a bad short yardage team. Even against the Ball States of the world, Michigan fails to reliably convert on third-and-two or third-and-one. FOR YEARS. I don't know if it's strength training, technique, or emotion, but something is absent in this program if it can always spew rhetoric about commitment to the run and toughness and then come back, year after year, and regularly fail in the ground game or get the tough yards.

Against OSU, it was more of the same. Not only did Michigan fail to convert several important third downs when only a few yards or less was needed, but the inability led to bad play calling. At least twice on fourth-and-short near midfield, Michigan elected to punt rather than go for it. If that isn't an admission of your running game's shortcomings, and an error in coaching, I don't know what is: you can't stop the other team and only stand to net about 25 yards, and you're still going to punt? Pathetic. Nothing was worse, of course, then the third-and-one when Michigan tried to go deep to Manningham only to come back and...punt. I loved the impulse to take a shot deep, but at midfield with a yard to go, you gotta take two chances to fall forward once. Then go deep.

I don't want to pile on Lloyd or the play calling too much, though, because while those factors influenced the game's outcome, so too did the excellent of Troy Smith and the absence of the Michigan defense.

And so, really, I'd like to be madder than I am. Two years ago, I thought that Michigan quit in Columbus, and that was one of the most inexcusable performances I've ever seen, a horrible indictment of Lloyd Carr. Last year, I thought that the effects of conservative play calling and the cronyism that allowed Jim Herrmann to retain his job for so long were on display, and such obvious and avoidable misery was galling to the point that I actively hoped that Carr would be fired. This year? I am deeply saddened by the lost opportunity and another defeat at the hands of the Buckeyes, but I also don't think the coaching held the players back, that wholly poor execution doomed the team, or that the lesser team won. The majesty of this incarnation of The Game, the obvious superiority of the OSU coaches and Troy Smith, and the strong effort in defeat from Michigan all made this game somehow more tolerable.

Sadly, I think Michigan must admit that: 1) Tressel owns Carr; 2) OSU was better. If Henne doesn't overthrow Manningham, if OSU doesn't get two touchdown runs of over 50 yards, if Crable doesn't hit Smith--lots of things could have been different and altered the outcome. But let's not forget that Smith overthrew open receivers, that Adrian Arrington broke tackles, and that OSU gave away the ball twice for no reason. The breaks tend to even out, leaving you with a winner and a loser. And as has become the regular case, Carr and Michigan again lost to a team that maximizes its talent and always forces Michigan to adjust to what it's dictating.

OSU is likely going to play USC in January for the national title, and in some ways, that's fitting, because those are the two best programs in the sport right now. And that, more than a single game loss, is what really is troublesome.

I was proud of the Wolverines last weekend. I only wish that they had been better. Michigan must find a way.