It could've been worse. Well. Only in the sense that by "worse" I mean the team bus could've fallen into a ravine on the way home. So, no, it really couldn't have been worse.
Over the years, I've seen three games where I felt that Michigan simply didn't belong on the same field as their opponent. The first was the 2003 23-0 drubbing Iowa delivered to Michigan Stadium. The second was the 2007 Oregon visit where the Ducks pulled off not one, but two statue of liberty plays en route to a complete dismantling of the Wolverines. Saturday was the third.
It's not that I haven't seen Michigan helpless to defend itself before. I have. I called it the 2008 season. It's more that in the three games I listed, I thought Michigan should've had a fighting chance to, at a minimum, compete. That Michigan would put up a good fight, and if the breaks fell the right way, possibly, just possibly, eek out a slim victory. I didn't expect a victory mind you, but I expected some type of game. In all three games Michigan should've been competitive. In all three, despite an early showing of spirit, Michigan was ground into the tarmac just as if it was asphalt under a road paver.
Even so, Michigan came out strong. They played tough for a quarter on defense. They controlled the ball for the first 20 minutes. If things had gone our way the result might have been different. At least that's what people will tell themselves. "If".
The word "if" has become a mandatory part of any conversation involving Michigan's performance on any given Saturday. "If" they held onto the ball. "If" we had a kicker. "If" they caught the damn ball. "If" they tackled better. "If" player X had broken just one more tackle... things would've been different. It's gotten to the point that the word "if" has become delusional phrase. It's not just that it's blindly optimistic in the face of past performance, it's an excuse that doesn't really have an answer. Sure, "if" Michigan had scored more points they would've won. And by that logic, "if" I could fly I could use the money I save on public transit to buy an XBox.
What it comes down to is that so many of us are willing to continually say "if" and excuse so many things that we know are going wrong because we want this team, these players, and this coaching staff to succeed. I think Rich Rodriguez is a wonderful human being and a very good coach that, if given the opportunity (re: more than two recruiting classes), can lead Michigan back to the promised land. I love the make up of this team, from Denard Robinson's smile, to Darryl Stonum's flashes of brilliance, to Jordan Kovacs' teeny body that somehow defies the laws of physics and makes tackle after tackle. They never quit. They never give up. Week in, week out, they work so hard and deserve so much more than they've received. So, for that, I remain willing to use the word "if" with great frequency.
Despite this, you can only say "if" and ignore reality for so long. Eventually you look out from behind your blinders and see things as they are. And as the 2010 Big Ten regular season concludes, we're still making the same excuses for this team and coaching staff we've been making since 2009.
From the midway point of second quarter on, it was readily apparent that Ohio State was no longer in a giving mood. Michigan was basically helpless. The Wolverines amassed a grand total of 71 yards on their six possessions between Denard's rushing touchdown and their meaningless fourth quarter 68 yard drive that ended in a turnover on downs. This despite putting up 176 yards on their first four possessions.
It was a standard Michigan performance against a good team. A lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. As discussed yesterday, Michigan did it's usual thing. Roll up seemingly impressive yardage numbers, yet put little on the scoreboard before the half.
This was the fifth time this conference season that Michigan has run up 200 or more yards in the first half. Michigan is 2-3 in those games. This was also the third time that Michigan has scored 10 points or less in the first half despite gaining 200 or more yards in the first half. When the dust had cleared, Michigan rolled up 351 total yards against Ohio State. And scored seven points.
The hard truth is that this is not a very good team. Despite the glorious history of their uniforms, helmets and the stadium they play in, they are still young, undersized, inexperienced, and mistake prone. The coaching staff still can't find a kicker or continues to place Jeremy Gallon on the field despite the fact he fumbled the ball 4 times on 27 touches. But we tend to look past that. A lot of us see the potential in the offense and see something that is simply not there. Not yet. This offense can be both brilliant and useless based on the opponent they are playing.
Some people suggest that Michigan's coming from behind in the Iowa, PSU and Wisconsin games shows how well this offense can work and the resiliency of the offense. Personally, I think that's another "If". "If" Michigan's offense was as good as we want to believe it is, it would've scored more than 7, 10, and 0 points in the first half respectively. Instead, like at Ohio State, Michigan was down 14, 18, and 24 points before heading into the locker room. Like the Ohio State game, those games were over before the second half kicked off.
So, for me at least, the excuses need to stop. We all want this team, this staff, to succeed. But we cannot be blind to the reality of what we have seen this year. The defense is the worst in the history of Michigan Football. This offense finished its regular season with the Big Ten's worst turnover margin for the third straight year. Despite leading the conference in total offense, its in-conference points per game average (excluding OT versus Illinois) was 28.125 ppg, good enough for fifth in the conference (in-conference season only). (Correction made thanks to Dr. Saturday).
It was a 7-5 team. Honestly, so was last year's edition. An OT loss to MSU, an inexplicable loss to Purdue, and a skin of their teeth loss to Iowa sunk the Wolverines to 5-7 in 2009. This year a pair of skin of their teeth wins over Illinois and Indiana, as well as a sloppy win over Purdue, is all that separates the two teams. Here's where I'll differ with everyone. Last year's team seemed more competitive. They were always in the game early. They were always the aggressor. They were much more competitive with the top tier of the conference. It wasn't until they ran out of bullets in the second half that the doors came off in spectacular fashion.
This year it was the opposite. Michigan wasn't competitive against the conference's top tier. They were constantly playing catch up. Last year they looked prepared for games early. This year they looked perplexed as to why they couldn't score points. As exciting as the offense was this year, it didn't make a difference against the elite teams until it was too late to matter. And Michigan's competitiveness agaisnt top teams is how we should judge it. Not on how it performs against bottom feeders like Indiana, Purdue and Illinois.
So where does this take us? To the same point we were at when the season began. Michigan returns a veteran offensive line, a slew of experienced receivers, and no clear answer at running back. In 2011 Michigan will have two junior quarterbacks, both of whom should eb able to lead the offense to better, more productive days. The defense will remain a mess. Even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks and a slew of sophomore help, it loses two veteran linebackers and three veteran defensive linemen. Michigan will still be obscenely young on defense and inexperienced. Michigan will likely also be an unmitigated disaster on special teams as well. Nothing in the last three years suffices to convince me otherwise.
Through three years I, and a vast majority of the Michigan fan base, have been willing to say "if" and make excuses for the excellence we perceive will be in the offing. This team, this coaching staff, and these players are certainly capable of that. But both they, and we, must stop saying "if".
When the final gun sounded on Saturday, the time for excuses, "ifs" and optimism ran out. From this point forward, it's about results.