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Potent Notables from Michigan’s 2009 Football Season

(Brandon Minor 2009 vs Iowa, AP Photo Charlie Neibergall)

When Rich Rodriguez's Michigan football team began the 2009 campaign 4-0, most Wolverine fans (including yours truly) started to believe that a Rich Rodriguez-patented second year turnaround was well under way in Ann Arbor. The sudden appearance of a competent running attack, a new rotation of fearless, freshman quarterbacks, and the return of this thing they call a "down field passing game". A welcome sight to our tired eyes. And then came this unlikely, redemption-like victory over Notre Dame in Michigan Stadium 38-34 on national television.  Wow! Could the Hate Festival of Michigan Football finally be over with? It all looked so promising at the time.

Such belief was not rational, you see.  Because miraculous second-year turnarounds only occur at other, more far flung college football establishments.  They simply do not happen at Michigan. Wake up, you dreamers! And Michigan fans were suddenly and collectively jolted from deep REM sleep by that familiar, yet horrible falling sensation.  It was Michigan's 2009 football season derailing off the tracks at full speed, blasting through the rail guards, and careening off a cliff after the Michigan State game.  Michigan lost 7 of its final 8 games to finish 5-7 tied for last place in the Big Ten with a 1-7 record in conference play, finally rubbing elbows with the illustrious Indiana Hoosiers football program in the Big Ten cellar.

Maybe there's a Rodriguez-patented third year turnaround?


No Time

The Wolverines' 5-7 record has prompted sports media pundits, Michigan alumni, and sports fans to officially declare 2010 as the "make or break" year for Rich Rodriguez at Michigan. This is to say that if Rodriguez fails to win 7 or more games in 2010, then the curtains should be pulled on both him and his staff at Michigan. There is a growing contingent of Michigan fans who really want to see Rodriguez gone. Of course, there's an equal or larger swelling of Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State partisans who would no doubt beg that Rodriguez be allowed to stay.

While I can understand the impatience of Wolverine football fans who are dispersed across the planet, I just can't help it.  Part of me wants to see Rodriguez given a bit more time to clear UM's debt of player attrition and recruiting washouts, to restore meaningful depth back to the Michigan roster, and to allow Rodriguez' offensive, defensive and conditioning "systems" to finally take root and bear fruit.  I consider Michigan's case with Rodriguez to be a little different from everybody else's and that three years is probably not enough time to turn it all around.  But now with year three dead ahead, it's becoming clearer by the day to me that Rodriguez will likely not be afforded any more time to deliver the demanded results.

2009 in the Rear View Mirror

Looking back briefly at the 2009 Michigan team performance, it was a year of major contrasts.  On the one hand, there was tremendous growth and improvement in certain areas, but on the other hand inconsistency and regression on defense continued to dog Michigan all year long, undermining most of the positive growth observed on offense.  Michigan really should have won another two or three more games (Purdue, Illinois, Michigan State, Iowa) and secured bowl eligibility in 2009.  Unfortunately, the Wolverines were too young, too thin, and overall not good enough yet to do so.

Michigan 2009: On Offense

Offensively speaking, in 2008 Michigan football hit rock bottom.  Michigan's national offensive rankings were an unequivocal embarrassment.  What's more, it was the worst offensive performance of any Rich Rodriguez-coached football team ever. The drastic changes in the team culture, demanding conditioning program, inconsistent messaging by the defensive coaching staff, and the overall complexity of the offense itself all took its toll on the Wolverine team. In general, UM's 2008 football games displayed for all to see both offensive and defensive units that didn't know what the hell they were supposed to be doing.

2008 Offense

Yards per game:                       290.8  (109th )

Points per game:                       20.3    (98th)

Yards Passing:                          1,718  (108th)

Yards Rushing:                         1,771   (61st)

3rd Down Success Rate:            27.3% (119th)

(Ranking out of 120 teams in Div I)

In 2009 things on offense were going to be way different.  Michigan returned an offensive line that was fully intact from the year prior, and included three experienced, top tier talented running backs in the likes of seniors Brandon Minor, Carlos Brown and sophomore Michael Shaw. The offense also featured two promising freshman quarterbacks with big play-making skills and considerable mobility: Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson.  The end result was a massive jump forward in total offensive production in virtually every respect:

2009 Offense

Yard per game:                         384.5 (59th)

Points per game:                       29.5 (45th)

Yards Passing:                          2,380 (83rd)

Yards Rushing:                         2,234 (28th)

3rd Down Success Rate:            40% (60th)

(Ranking out of 120 teams in Div I)

This astonishing offensive improvement was achieved by Rich Rodriguez and staff only in the second year of coaching at Michigan behind two virgin quarterbacks, a comparatively youthful and rather banged up offensive line, not to mention a perpetual triage station that was Michigan's tailback position every single week of the season (Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown).  

Doubters of Rich Rodriguez might wish to consider an important question here.  Michigan's running backs Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown in 2009 combined for only 177 carries and 982 total yards in 2009, and just 12 rushing touchdowns. This output is far, far below the Rich Rodriguez season average for lead running back carries operating under his spread option offensive system.  Normally, running backs under Rodriguez's offense hit a whopping 227 carries each per season (at least) and about 1,220 yards rushing per season.   I don't have to go through the list to prove this, but maybe I should:

1998 TB Toney Converse, Tulane          175 attempts, 982 yards, 8 TDs, 5.6 avg.

1999 TB Travis Zachary, Clemson        185 attempts, 902 yards, 16 TDs, 4.9 avg.

2000 TB Travis Zachary, Clemson        201 attempts, 1,044 yards, 13 TDs, 5.2 avg.

2001 TB Avon Cobourne, WVU               267 attempts, 1,298 yards, 9 TDs, 4.9 avg.

2002 TB Avon Cobourne, WVU               335 attempts, 1,710 yards, 17 TDs (!), 5.1 avg

2003 TB Quincy Wilson, WVU                 282 attempts, 1,380 yards, 12 TDs, 4.9 avg

2004 TB Kay Jay Harris, WVU                165 attempts, 959 yards, 10 TDs, 5.8 avg

2005 TB Steve Slaton, WVU                    205 attempts, 1,128 yards, 17 TDs (!), 5.5 avg

2006 TB Steve Slaton, WVU                    248 attempts, 1,744 yards, 16 TDs (!), 7.0 avg

2007 TB Steve Slaton, WVU                    211 attempts, 1,051 yards,  17 TDs (!), 5.0 avg

2008 TB Brandon Minor, Michigan        103 attempts, 533 yards, 9 TDs, 5.2 avg.

2009 TB Brandon Minor, Michigan          96 attempts, 502 yards, 9 TDs, 5.2 avg

          TB Carlos Brown, Michigan            81 attempts, 480 yards, 4 TDs, 5.9 avg.

Rodriguez has a model in his brain about how things should play out on offense at Michigan.  The rushing attack is just one aspect. We just haven't seen much of it emerge at Michigan yet.  Of course, past performance does not guarantee future results, but the above trends suggest that there's probably more improvement in store for Michigan offensively in 2010.

An important question: So if Michigan can somehow bust out the offensive improvement it did in 2009 with a rotation of two 18 year old quarterbacks, limping 4-star zombies at tailback, and a banged up and comparatively inexperienced offensive line, then what happens when Michigan starts to field a more confident tandem of quarterbacks, and a deeper, and perhaps more consistently healthy offensive line and backfield?  

Most haven't bothered to set down their torches and pitchforks or to stop thinking about Les Miles and Jim Harbaugh long enough to even consider the possibilities. 

Notable Positives on Offense for Michigan in 2009:

  1. Slightly fewer turnovers in 2009 (28 vs. 31 in 2008)
  2.  Dramatic improvement in scoring per game
  3. Dramatic improvement in passing yards (662 yards more gained)
  4. Dramatic improvement in rushing yards (463 yards more gained)
  5. Higher-utilization of different receivers
  6. More scoring by different players quarterbacks, running backs and receivers
  7. Quarterback mobility
  8. Low number of offensive penalties (ranked 107th in 2009, 58 for 517 yards)
  9. 20 first downs per game vs. 15 per game in 2008
  10. 40% success rate on 3rd down vs. 27% success rate in 2008

Notable Negatives on Offense in 2009:

  1. Key injuries killed Michigan's offensive line effectiveness and consistency (Dave Molk, among others)
  2. Chronic injuries at tailback limited the total carries of Michigan's best running backs Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown.
  3. 28 total turnovers over 12 games, 14 interceptions in 2009 vs 31 total turnovers in in 2008. It remains to be an issue.
  4. Freshman mistakes by Michigan quarterbacks (missed reads, incompletions, interceptions, fumbles, hanging on to the ball too long, and in general just trying to do too much all at once).
  5. For the second straight year no homerun or deep scoring threat emerged at wide receiver for Michigan. This would have kept opposing defenses far more honest against an improving rushing attack.

Michigan 2009: On Defense

Going into the 2009 season, anyone with a quark particle of intellectual honesty knew that Michigan was up against it on the defensive side of the ledger.  Why were the cards stacked against Michigan's favor to such an extent?  The answer is that few college football teams anywhere in the land could boast about being on their 4th defensive coordinator in 5 years (Jim Herrmann, Ron English and Scott Shafer, and now new DC Greg Robinson), or about losing 3 of their starting front 4 defensive lineman (Terrance Taylor, Tim Jamison and Will Johnson) to graduation, or about losing their two most experienced cornerbacks (Brandon Harrison and Morgan Trent), or about losing 33% of the 2008 freshman class to attrition, and then somehow still expect  to be in any position to legitimately vie for a share of the Big Ten conference title. 

Yet apparently many Michigan football fans and alumni did have this expectation about Michigan's defense. Why did Wolverine football fans believe this? I don't know, but the popular response I kept hearing was either "Because We're Michigan!" or - more convincingly - "Because We're Michigan, dammit!". How I wish such declarations of superiority by fiat would just translate automatically success on the gridiron.  That would be a lot easier. Alas, Michigan must settle for being no different from anybody else under similar circumstances.  When you royally suck on defense, winning football games is going to prove to be elusive.

A look at the Greg Robinson difference in 2009:

2008 Defense

Yards per Game:          367  (68th)

Points per Game:          28.9 (81st)

Passing Yards:             2,760 (88th)

Rushing Yards:             1,643 (46th)

Fumble Recoveries:      13

Interceptions:                  7

2009 Defense

Yards per Game:          393  (81st)

Points per Game:          27.5 (79th)

Passing Yards:              2,657 (66th)

Rushing Yards:             2,063 (93rd)

Fumble Recoveries:      5

Interceptions:                11

Between 2008 and 2009 football seasons Michigan not only imploded, but regressed in almost every category except surprisingly opponent passing yards.  Unfortunately, this mini-success by GERG's defensive staff of slowing down opponent passing attacks can be rather easily explained (or dismissed) by the ease with which Michigan opponents moved the ball on the ground every Saturday afternoon. 

Notable Positives on Defense 2009:

  1. Greg Robinson made some interesting position changes that generated some surprising success, like moving senior FS Stevie Brown to linebacker, for example.
  2. Michigan's defensive front of Mike Martin, Craig Roh and Brandon Graham played remarkably well together all season long.
  3. The emergence of Donovan Warren in the UM secondary. Opponents started to avoid him.
  4. The return of successful blitzes and sacks.
  5. Brandon Graham.

Notable Negatives on Defense 2009:

  1. Michigan's lack of experience and depth in the defensive secondary. Starting 5-star CB Boubacar Cissoko was dismissed from the team, thrusting RS freshman J.T Floyd and walk-on Jordan Kovacs into starting roles alongside sophomore CB Troy Woolfolk, junior CB Donovan Warren, and sophomore safety Michael Williams. Michigan's secondary gave up over 236 yards passing per game in 2009 (essentially the same per game stat as 2008).
  2. Surprisingly inconsistent play among veteran Wolverines linebackers cost Michigan dearly over the course of the 2009 season in the form of surrendering 420 more yards rushing yards, generating fewer turnovers, and giving up 1.4 more points per game scoring than the year prior.
  3. Continued soft corner coverage playing 7 to 10 yards off opponent receivers.
  4. Giving up way too many big pass plays for either key 3rd down conversions or touchdowns.
  5. Poor secondary support against the run was frequently observed somewhere between awful to non-existent.
  6. Michigan was easy to score on.  It really didn't matter whether it was 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th quarter. Overall Michigan was equally generous in all four quarters with respect to scoring defense.

The biggest reason Michigan lost 7 football games in 2009 was the complete inability to stop the run.  7 of Michigan's 12 opponents racked up 150 yards rushing or more against the Wolverines. 7 of Michigan's 12 opponents achieved 250 yards passing. 

From an historical standpoint of Michigan football, Rich Rodriguez's teams are playing the exact kind of defense one would expect from a perennial second tier Big Ten team: inconsistent total defense, average-to-poor scoring defense and abysmal rushing defense.

As much as I love the finesse and efficacy of the spread option attack, defense is what matters most in college football today.  Any one football team can thump their chests all they want about 40+ points and +500 yard per game and still not come remotely close to winning a conference title.  Interestingly, in the context of Big Ten football, offense is not what lays waste to the opposition and captures the Big Ten championship hardware.  Penn State and Ohio State have been Big Ten champions the last several years for one reason and one reason only: superior total defense.

Michigan has had two different defensive coordinators under Rich Rodriguez.  Some may wish to grant him a mulligan for 2008 (Scott Shafer), but there simply has to be significant improvement on defense in 2010 otherwise the Wolverines will be staring down the barrel of a repeat of 2009.

Other Micron-Sized Team Improvement: Decisive Wins and Close Losses

When pacing the room back and forth in consideration as to just how close your favorite team may be teetering on the edge between disaster and mediocrity is to carefully observe the number of decisive wins and close losses over the football season.

In 2008 Michigan won only 3 games and lost the other 9.  Of those three UM victories, only one (a 29-6 win over Minnesota) was a "decisive win".  The lackluster Miami(OH) win 16-6 and the unlikely, miracle-like win over Wisconsin by 2 points were pretty much "close wins".  On the other side of the ledger, of Michigan's 9 losses in 2008, only two could be described as "close losses": Toledo (3 pt loss) and Utah (2 pt loss), although Michigan made the Utah game score more respectable than it really was.

In 2009 Michigan won 5 games and lost 7. Of the 5 wins, three were "decisive wins" (WMU, EMU and DSU) and two were close wins (Notre Dame and Indiana).  More telling, of the 7 losses in 2009, three were "close losses" (MSU by 6 in OT, Iowa by 2 pts, Purdue by 2 pts).

2008: 1 close wins, 2 close losses

2009: 2 close wins, 3 close losses

Heading into 2010 with a long list of known debilitates on defense, likely steady improvements to the offense, and a much more difficult schedule (which I will explore in more detail later), we can probably come to expect fewer decisive wins and far more close wins or nail-biting close losses by Michigan next fall.