On a night when many dressed up in costumes and went to bars and parties amidst a sea of faceless people, I am almost certain that Rich Rodriguez had at least one moment when he wished he could put on a mask and disappear into a crowd. How could he not? If my reaction as a fan hundreds of miles away was to scream irrationally at the television, slam my fist down on my ottoman, and throw whatever was in front of me against the adjacent wall, I can't even imagine being in charge of that debacle. At least I could walk away from it for a little while, which I did early in the fourth quarter when I left for the bar with some friends. I still searched for and ultimately found a radio feed of the game once we got in the car. I couldn't stand to watch the proceedings anymore, but I still couldn't totally turn my back on the game. Michigan football 2010: masochism without all the nifty gadgets and leather.
What we witnessed Saturday night under the lights of Beaver Stadium was disheartening at best and I can't even put in to words what it was at worst. This wasn't just a case of a defense being exposed against an unlikely opponent. This was a defense surrendering the single best game of the season to a beaten up and depleted offense. No first string quarterback? No problem. Inconsistent run game? Not an issue. Offensive line problems? Don't worry about it. Hell, some of us even made jokes about the "McFavre" moniker that Penn State fans had attached to Matt McGloin. Looks like the joke's on us.
Offensively there isn't too much to say. Coming out of a bye week the Wolverines got off to a somewhat understandably slow start. Once the wheels started turning the offense rolled along comfortably for the entire second half--save for the final drive. Even the special teams showed up for the most part. Competent kickoffs, a made FG, and only one horrific return error has to be considered a win, right? Right?
Wrong. You have to show up in all three phases of the game, and on Saturday it felt like the defense stayed back in Ann Arbor to get a head start on trick-or-treating.
Of course one of the main problems is our secondary only seems to be about two or three years removed from acceptable trick-or-treatimg age. The player participation list for the secondary in Saturday's game has six true freshmen, two RS-freshmen, two RS-sophomores, and one senior getting playing time. I would like to buy all of them a drink to help forget about getting torched by Nick Sheridan's ginger cousin, but only one of the eleven players who got playing time in the secondary is legally allowed to drink. Is it any wonder Matt McGloin found so much success against what is essentially a high school all-conference secondary? He may be a physically deficient walk-on, but he is smart enough to take what the defense gives him. Saturday the answer to what the defense would give him was anything he wanted.
Speaking of Halloween, it seems Evan Royster and the Penn State offensive line dressed up as the 2009 version of themselves, It certainly looked like last year's productive version of Royster was running around out there, and not this years inconsistent Royster behind a depleted and undersized offensive line. Coming in to the game I thought the front seven actually had a chance to keep Royster from beating the school rushing record. That hope died before the first drive ended. Although, Michigan's defense might have been better had Mike Martin no put on his Achilles costume for the night.
As has happened so many times this season we had our expectations ripped down another notch after weeks of rationalizing. After two losses to top 15 teams we all thought, "at least our defense will be good enough to beat Penn State." In the aftermath we are forced to revisit why we were ever so foolish in the first place. To think a defensive secondary which has more true freshman playing than upperclassmen could really be counted on to stop anyone. To think that we could survive an injury to the best player on the defense without significant drop off. To think that the offense wouldn't have to be electric for 95% of the game to win.
Ultimately this doesn't matter for some (and to be honest I find it increasingly tough to keep in mind myself). You play to win the game, and that has been something this team has utterly failed at outside the month of September.
I am going to cut right to the chase: it is still too early to talk about the fate of this coaching staff. If it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside to troll the message boards and shout down all of us "blind supporters" for pointing out silly things like the ridiculous average age of the defense and the encouraging offensive production, then so be it. Certainly no one is going to call you foolish for claiming this team is a .500 unit at best, or saying that this is the worst defense you have ever witnessed. But keep in mind that the book on Rodriguez hasn't been written yet. There are still four more games, and two of them still seem somewhat winnable. You may not like to admit it, but 7-5 is still the baseline that many set for this season, and with the gaping holes on this roster it is an understandable outcome.
There will be time to talk about hirings and firings. Who should be held accountable for the defense's performance this year--be it GERG or Rodriguez--and what should be done about it. I myself--an unabashed Rodriguez and GERG supporter--am coming around to the idea of at least some staffing changes happening in the offseason (cough, fire GERG, cough).
However, the time to talk about those things is still in the future, on the afternoon of November 27th. Once the season is in the books and we have a full three years of evidence on which to judge the perfomance of Rich Rodriguez.
As Michigan fans we have a tendency to be consumed by the quest for greatness. I am just as guilty of this as anyone else. I spend hours combing over recruiting profiles, looking at depth charts, and extrapolating individual improvement over three or four year periods. Everything comes back to the fundamental question of when. When will we compete for Big Ten Championships? When will we be good enough to make a run at the BCS? This abstract idea of some moment of future greatness clouds everything. We lose the forest for the trees. Is it our fault we were all spoiled for so long? That greatness was never in question, and Big Ten championships were always the baseline goal for a season. It is understandable that we fetishize this idea of "a return to glory." We want to get back to where we spent a good portion of our college football following lives.
That being said, we still have to maintain some perspective. Keep greatness as a goal for the future, but don't let it ruin your enjoying of the present. This is still a young team full of kids who are playing their hearts out. We owe it to them to keep watching for today, not some future return to greatness.
So if you must compose your list of suitable coaching replacements or your fifteen point lists of reasons to fire Rich Rodriguez, go ahead and do it. Just keep it to yourself. It is an insult to the kids who bust their ass every day and have more invested in this season than any of us do, that so many people are willing to write off the last four games and start looking to the future. This season isn't over for them, and if you really care about this team it shouldn't be over for you either.
If you have faith in anyone leading the program, have faith in David Brandon to do the right thing at the right time. I'm sure if you asked him he would tell you the same thing: The only thing to do right now is cheer on the team that you have, not wish for the team that you want down the road.
(Sidenote: As has happened more times than I care to count, the Wolverine Liberation Army says what I want to 1000 times better than I am able.)