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A Win, A Win, My Kingdom For A Win...

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First off, apologies for the deleted threads, basically there was nothing of value being stated in the most recent one, and the game thread had digressed to caps-lock explicatives from yours truly, and really, there's just not much to gleam from that is there?  Anyways, discretion being the better part of valor, I decided to try to calm down a bit before putting some thoughts together here.  Let's just get this out of the way first: that was an appalling loss.  Appalling is at least in the correct ball-park I'd say, and it's not a four-letter word, so we'll go with that.  I have no doubt that this team was trying their best out there (how else do you block a punt when you're down by three scores late in the game)?  I'm not going to question their heart either, they are out their busting their tails day in and day out, so to question their desire, etc is just wrong if you ask me.  Let's steer clear of that shall we?  Anyways, this was an Illinois team that was outright horrible coming into this game; in every measurable statistic they were horrible.  We made them look out-freakin-standing from the start of the second half onward.  I mean, well, words still fail me even now to be honest.  Now then, let's also get something else out of the way: there are clear and obvious deficiencies on this Michigan football team.  That said, this was not only a winnable game but one we controlled for the first 30 minutes (aside from Illinois first drive, I believe they had 12 yards in the first half), and had an opportunity to put into firm grasp at the start of the 3rd quarter.  This brings me to coaching concern numero uno.

The goal-line stand - Have you ever seen such a punctuated drastic change in a football game with so much time left?  The worst part was that somewhere in the back of my head, when Roundtree was caught on the one I thought to myself "oh no"...  I hate that portion of my brain, the worrisome/mettlesome portion that makes me worry about things like picking up a simple yard for a score.  Now then, what followed falls entirely at the feet of the coaches.  You have a senior tailback who has worked his tail off to be a part of this football team in a limited role, he has fulfilled what was asked of him to continue to be a member of this team and did so in a manner that enabled him to be a captain today.  Kevin Grady needed to see the football four times on the one yardline.  He didn't even see the field.  How do you NOT stay in your spread and pound the football with Grady?  If you decide to forego that option, then you absolutely MUST tell Tate to keep the football if he sees a gap in the D-line (like the CHASM that was present on second down).  This was an enormous gaff that completely deflated this Michigan football team and gave Illinois life when they had done nothing all day.  This was easily the biggest turning point of the football game and it falls squarely on Coach Rodriguez and his offensive staff.  Everything else that happened can be traced back to the failure of the Michigan offense to pick up a TD from one yard away.

The Read Option - Juice Williams has been anywhere from god-awful to atrocious this season, we  made him look like a Heisman contender (again).  Is it not concerning to anyone else that we were torched by plays that this defense essentially sees every single day in practice?  How hard is it to tell your defenders to hit the QB every time, you plant him every single time whether he pitches it or keeps it, you drill him.  Our linebackers and safeties were so out of position and so confused as to what was going on that we made a horrifying offense look like a well oiled machine.  Again, I don't have solutions on defense, but I at least have some suggestions:

  1. Switch up the safeties.  Whomever, however you do it, I don't care, but give someone else a shot.  Mike Williams is simply not getting the job done right now.  I don't know if it's coaching or just a lack of recognition on individual players' parts, but on nearly every single big play, there's Williams nowhere close to the play or taking an angle that puts him so far away from the action that you wonder what it is, exactly, that he's keying on.  I'm not calling out the young man for the sake of jollies here, I'm sure he's out there playing his tail off, but he's not getting the job done and its been big time play after big time play as a result.
  2. This team is still not tackling, it's more like they're hanging on and eventually dragging someone down.  However you have to address this, do it.  This team isn't wrapping up  and they aren't stopping people on first contact.  This is not exactly a new issue with Michigan defenses, but it certainly seems to be one that is the most directly addressable via practice and coaching... it doesn't take 5 star talent to know how to make a solid tackle.  Basic fundamentals.  If you don't have the talent to be proficient in complex schemes, you absolutely MUST be sound in the fundamentals, we are not.  I fully understand that we have a talent deficit on defense, but that doesn't mean that these guys aren't capable of playing competent very basic defensive football, you know, tackling.   
  3. Our linebackers continue to look lost, Ezeh and Mouton continue to really take puzzling angles and again are slow to fill holes.  How many times did we have an LB literally stand next to Williams trying to figure out if he still had the ball or not... HIT HIM, IT'S FOOTBALL!!!  We're dying for any kind of consistency from this spot on the roster, we've gotten none so far this year.

Down three scores with time left -  Michigan drives down and, while I agree that a TD would've been huge, a FG puts you within 15 and lots of time to play.  I don't understand essentially putting the game on the line right there.  It sure would've been nice to have that FG on the board when we blocked that punt wouldn't it?  Sure I know it likely doesn't make a difference in the outcome, but that's not why I bring this up.  I find it concerning because this is again on coaching and game management.  You're sending a message to your team there by not kicking the FG on 4th and goal from the 10, and at that time, it's the wrong kind of message.  One of the greatest comebacks in Michigan history started with a FG you may recall (down 17 with 7 minutes to go against MSU in '04).  You need three scores, you take a score however you can get it if you ask me.

End of the 1st half -  Really the fist half was dominated by Michigan in every aspect except the scoreboard.  The defense did a nice job holding them to 3 and out at the end of the half and Michigan had two timeouts left.  Rather than using one to keep approximately one minute on the clock about to receive the ball, instead Rodriguez let the clock run down and simply ran out the half after the punt...  Since when is that this staff's MO?  Again, what kind of message are you sending there?  Why go to the half quietly with a timeout in your pocket when you had a chance to score and get the ball to start the 3rd?

Have to reel in Tate - Tate Forcier is a freshman, this is obvious and has been repeated ad nauseum, but it needs to be stressed to a young guy that you do not try to make up a deficit in one play.  You could see as the game went on that Tate started bypassing open underneath receivers trying to hit the big play, he waited longer in the pocket, scrambled around more opening himself to hits and consequently fumbles, and it hurt his team.  At a time when there was time to simply continue running the offense, you absolutely have to pull your young QB aside and get him focused on what you have to do.  The turnovers aren't on coaching, but some of the situations that lead to them could've been prevented by keeping your young guys heads in the game.  This will improve with experience and maturity, but it'd be nice to see Tate keeping within the offense a little more in these kind of situations rather than forcing it.

Redzone - Dude, seven trips inside the 20 and 13 points???????????

Measurable progress -  The Notre Dame game was, is, and will continue to be a big win for this football team.  That said, every other team we lost to last year we've again lost to this year.  That's troubling.  It's hard to argue that any of these teams are markedly better than they were last season (Illinois is considerably worse), but I find it concerning that within the conference our team has not improved in the slightest from last season relative to its competition.  I fully understand that this is a better football team than the 2008 Michigan squad, but that doesn't much matter if you aren't winning games.  So yes, count me at least slightly worried here, especially since Ron Zook (who cannot coach himself out of a paper bag) has taken us to the woodshed twice now, and this time with a downright bad football team.

Now then, there are many in the fanbase who are clamoring to say "everyone got too excited after starting 4-0, etc, etc, etc".  I disagree.  I mean sure there were some eccentrics out there who proclaimed an improbable run after the first four weeks that was way premature, but let's not pretend those four games were some kind of mirage either.  This team played at a level in those football games that it simply was not capable of last year.  Unfortunately, short of the Iowa game, we have not seen that level of play again since.  Many of the familiar unforced errors and turnovers have crept back into the fold, and we've struggled mightily since.  Now then, let's lay some facts out there before we get all huffy about Coach Rodrguez:

  • This team has absolutely no defense, this the result of many factors: attrition, lack of solid defensive recruiting at key positions, lack of development of key prospects at key spots, and a lack of a solid base in fundamentals.  This team has an outstanding defensive line and nothing else, it's a shame because we're watching one of the great DE's we've ever had have to play through this.  But look, this team is starting two former walkons right now... at Michigan, has that ever happened before?  Seriously, ever?  We're at a talent low on defense that is easily comparable to what we saw on offense last season.  
  • Yes, it has been said a million times, let's say it again: this team is being operated by a freshman quarterback.  An improvement over last season in terms of talent, certainly, but still an inexperienced freshman who has made his share of freshman mistakes this season.  Tate is trying to do too much at times now, and it's on the staff to get him back on track because when he sticks to the offense, things certainly have a propensity to click.  
  • Even with a freshman QB and our best lineman out for the season, this offense is capable of great things, not always consistently, but certainly more than we ever saw last season.  There have been many streaks of brilliance there this year punctuated by periods of just flummoxing incompetence.  Call it growing pains, I know it doesn't make it any easier to tolerate, but just realize that there has been definitive and noticeable improvement on that side of the football.
  • This isn't measurable, but seriously, we cannot buy a break over these past several games.  Once again we caught a team with 13 men on the field when we snapped the ball and it wasn't called... it's a clear rule and an easy call...  Beauford and I talked a bit about how if the officials aren't calling that stuff then maybe we shouldn't be trying so hard to catch teams like that, but after more thought I have a hard time not getting really angry that this team is doing things like that and not getting the calls.  I want us to push the tempo, I want us to catch teams off-guard, I want us to play in a way that has the defense getting caught in those kinds of positions.  To not get those calls is a joke.  Also, another holding call on this offense the second the ball is snapped... which, really?

There will undoubtedly be many threads dedicated to Rodriguez's future this week, to which I sigh mostly.  I understand that people are angry and are looking for explanations.  I also understand that there will be some epic hyperbole about expecations, tradition, and how things are done-round-these-parts type of stuff that will make me weep softly inside for the good of humankind.  Rodriguez deserves some criticism, but that's not to say he deserves to be treated as though he's a bumbling idiot who has put this team in this position all on his own.  I simply cannot ignore the fact that Rodriguez has succeeded before, yes I know it was in the Big East, whatever, he's an experienced guy who had his teams performing at an elite level when he left.  That doesn't just all disappear now that he's in Ann Arbor rather than Morgantown.  Again that fact does not place him above criticism either, it does not mean that he still shouldn't face some tough questioning after performances like this.  I said previously that this game falls largely at the feet of Rodriguez and the staff and I firmly believe that... but let's remember this is year two.  A program is not built in two years, nor is it built in three years.  It takes time.  Look at our defense for god's sake, there are issues there that are only going to be improved with recruiting at this point.  There are other issues that are going to improve with experience (QB).  There are also issues, however, that have nothing to do with player personnel, and that's what's troubling: mistakes with the football, fundamental gaffs, a defense that looks lost against an offense it faces day in and day out, etc.

Improvement needs to be seen though, and for the first time in Rodriguez's tenure I'm concerned about the lack of improvement against known competition.  A bowl game should have been assured by a 4-0 start.  This team should have handled a terrible Illinois team today.  After tough losses to MSU and Iowa, the team really gassed it against Penn State.  All of these losses were explainable and/or understandable in some way, also obviously frustrating/concering, but at least understandable.  We then were looking at playing the worst two teams in the conference in Illinois and Purdue with a chance to stretch to 7-3 heading into the final two games of the season.  Michigan's failure to get the job done today, let alone how it happened, has caused me to worry about where this team is for the first time in Rodriguez's tenure.  A loss to Purdue next week would present the very real possibility that Michigan could finish the year 1-7 over its last eight games and miss a bowl for the second straight year...  this is something that I don't think anyone would swallow easily and that's putting it lightly.  I'm of the firm belief that it would ludicrous to give Rodriguez anything short of four years here, he's just now getting the opportunity to fill the offense with players he has recruited, and on defense we aren't even close to reaching that point.  It is going to take time, which is something everyone needs to understand.  It's not a simple question of just tweaking one thing or another schematically in the long haul, it's a question of bringing in talent.  Of course my opinion on the matter means nothing and I'm not sure how those whose opinions do matter approach these kind of things.  

It sure seemed like the initial game-plan was there today: Brown had 25 carries in a game where we were all begging for our backs to touch the ball more.  We utlized a lot of quick throws and reads and generally dominated the first half everywhere except where it matters most: the score.  Then the execution went away, there were some tremendous errors in in-game management in my opinion, and it all fell apart at the worst possible time.  I'm concerned about how this team seemed to lose its composure again, I'm concerned that nine games into this season they're making mistakes that they were not making in the first four weeks.  No matter how you slice it, some of it (a lot of it) falls on coaching in some way or another.  I'm concerned because this football team with the same players has played much, much, much better football this year than what we've seen over the past month.

I do think we can say the following:

  • Missing a bowl this season should be viewed very poorly after a 4-0 start... "epic collapse" would describe it aptly.
  • Despite the hot start, I'm starting to have some trepidation about where this team will advance to next season due to a combination of both schedule and the fact that our defense is losing its best player(s?) and what exactly do we have waiting for us in the wings on that side of the ball?  A major revamp needs to occur on defense prior to next year.
  • A win against Purdue would certainly stem the tide of woe-is-us worrying that will undoubtedly hit a fever-pitch this week to the point that this team might be able to find its bearings heading into Wisconsin and Ohio State... it's sad to say, but 7-5 would now be an enormous victory given where we are now.
  • These next three weeks will likely go a long way to determining just how much slack Rodriguez has going forward.  A win against OSU, no matter how unlikely that appears right now, cures many ills.  That said, if Tressel and company watch this tape, they may not even have Pryor throw a pass when they come to Ann Arbor (you think I'm kidding?).
  • Saying "this team just isn't that good" doesn't explain a loss like this, and frankly ignores large portions of how this team has played throughout the year.  This team isn't consistent in any way, but they are not 2008 either.  This team is more than capable of winning football games, particularly against these kind of teams.  Lack of execution is not the same as "just not very good".

So here we are, I'm not happy, you're not happy either, but there's nothing we can do about it now.  This team has three opportunities to try to put a positive spin on a year that has been nothing if not completely up or completely down. Right now a bowl, ANY bowl, is the goal.  Accomplish that and move on.  I like Rodriguez, I think that he has the tools to succeed in a big way here, but I don't have any idea how the people who matter are going to continue to view this thing if we keep dropping games like this.  He deserves no less than four years at the helm, a rash decision before that leaves us in no better shape and possibly sets us back even further.  If we are to garner anything out of these last three weeks the coaches are going to have to work their tails off to get this team in position to win games.  It starts with Purdue next week, get it done.