In the aftermath of Michigan's season opening loss to Utah, Rich Rodriguez and his staff were quick to place the blame on their own shoulders. It was gratifying to see that one of the things that hasn't changed between the Carr and Rodriguez regimes was the knowledge that after a game, win or lose, a coach's first duty is to protect his players.
As happy as I am to see Rich and the staff shoulder the blame for last Saturday's loss, one of Rodriguez' comments recently struck me as odd. The Free Press quoted Rodriguez as saying his players will play hard or they won't play at all. Sure, he does have a point. Michigan was horrifically timid in the opening half. Players were thinking rather than playing. Hesitancy did indeed replace execution for periods of time. You have to play hard, at full speed, 100% of the time for his offense and defense to work. Anything less than that is a loss.
Certainly, Rodriguez meant the statement as a challenge to his players. I'll bet hard currency he's said those exact words to his players in the locker room, albeit with a little more color in his cheeks and in his language. Control what you can control, yourself! If you play hard glory will be yours! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell No! I’m sure he also meant it as a wakeup call to players he felt were satisfied simply with earning playing time. Like all coaches, Rodriguez has to find ways to motivate. Sometimes with encouragement, other times, like this, with a little fire lit under the asses of those who need it.
However, as compelling as I find Rodriguez plea to his players and his public stance on effort after last year’s subpar efforts, I’m not entirely sure lack of effort was the reason Michigan came away on the short end of the stick against the Utes. There has been a lot written about how good Utah is, how their offense is as good as any Michigan will see, how they’re a BCS buster. I don’t buy it. Utah was good, but only barely good enough to walk away from Michigan Stadium with a win. When Michigan’s switched from a passive zone to an aggressive press, Utah did next to nothing and was bailed out by its rocket legged kicker, Louie Sakoda. Replace Sakoda, who was an All American, with even a good kicker, and there’s a fair chance the outcome is different.
What I saw on Saturday was an offense improperly suited for the personnel it put on the field. This is not to say these players can’t run the spread. They can. This isn’t theoretical physics, those third down charts Mgoblog does, or understanding why women gather in groups and cry whenever Jane Austen is mentioned. It’s football. And at its basic level, as Rodriguez has repeatedly told us it is, it’s a fairly simple offense. I didn’t see catastrophic mistakes by the line or players running the wrong way on a pitch. I saw a group of kids trying to execute a simple game plan that did not put them in the best position for success.
I’m sure there are players that will be singled out on both sides of the ball. Looked scared. Ran hesitantly. Late out of his stance. Ect. But as I pointed out yesterday, the offensive game plan used Saturday, was totally ill suited for the players it put on the field. The first half featured 9 rushes compared to 19 passes. Michigan passed on first down 6 times on 7 first half possessions. Call my crazy, but if you’re going to pass like that, have someone with an arm in the quarterback position and put a running back in the backfield who can pick up a blitzer from time to time. Passing systems require just as much execution as running play, if not more so because the ball is in the air rather than “safely” tucked away under a running back’s arm.
Instead, Michigan trotted out its least experienced running backs and receivers, and started an admittedly noodle armed quarterback that hasn’t played in a competitive football game since his junior year. Of high school. More than three years ago. While I’m sure if I looked at the tape a little closer I could see players making mental mistakes, being hesitant, missing an assignment, but I think the coaches need to take a look at the mental mistakes they made in putting their game plan together.
Most of this is proposed for the sake of argument. I believe wholeheartedly the staff will produce results next week. Why? Because it’s clear they didn’t have a clue who would react well to game situations. Look at Michigan’s defense in the first half versus the second. It was clear Shafer truly didn’t know just what button to push until the half ended. Look at the offense. Michigan began to establish a running game until Brandon Minor’s fumble on the Utah 34 handicapped Michigan’s ability to run the ball any further with limited time on the clock. The hole McGuffie pranced through for his touchdown was big enough for Mangino to walk through.
Sure, there were mistakes. But the mantra of “play hard or don’t play at all” may not be applicable to this Michigan team as a whole. Michigan must play harder, faster, and quicker if it wishes to be successful. The players must execute better. However, I submit the challenge for Coach Rodriguez is to scheme better. Otherwise all the hard play in the world won’t be enough to carry this team.