1. A Crisis of Confidence. When they write the epic song recounting the tale of Brady Hoke's heroic arrival and ultimate failure in Ann Arbor, this game probably won't be mentioned. It isn't an important conference game or a big non-conference matchup against a top-25 team. The only real history these teams have is as another footnote in the past failures of Michigan football: the first loss of the Rich Rodriguez years. It is just another game in the four year run of Michigan football under Brady Hoke.
It is a shame that this game will get overlooked. It is as stunning an indictment of this coaching staff as we have seen in Hoke's four years. Michigan's offense once again looks disjointed, managing just one drive of 50 yards all day (its first, going for a field goal) and shockingly, only two more that went over 30 yards. Michigan stalled again and again, not once reaching the red zone and finding different ways to cough the ball up. This is the second time in four games that Michigan has been held without an offensive touchdown. It began with a series of punts, only to devolve into a flurry of turnovers in the second half. This is an offense that takes two steps back for every step forward, and it has been this way for a while.
Of course the only two Utah touchdowns of the game came thanks to coaching mistakes. Michigan only had ten players on the field for its punt that led to a return touchdown, and halftime adjustments by Utah made for an easy five play touchdown drive to open the second half.
The narrative is inevitably going to focus more on things like Hoke and Mattison jawing at each other, but that is just a microcosm of the bigger problem. Hoke has once again seen a team regress under his watch, and the offseason moves that were supposed to turn things around have led to mixed results. Everyone looks to be on a different page and tensions are high.
Michigan can still win the Big Ten (no, seriously, the Big Ten is really bad, yo), but even that might only be shoveling water overboard slower than its coming over the side of the boat. Hoke would need a major turnaround to restore confidence that he is the right choice for Michigan long term.
This game might not be the one we think of in five or ten years when reminiscing on the end of the Hoke Era in Ann Arbor, but it is certainly the first game in which he truly felt like a dead man walking.
2. The Gardner Question. One thing that is certainly going to be talked about is Devin Gardner. He has been a hot topic around here and elsewhere as factions have broken out and infighting has overtaken the fan base.
This was a rough game from Gardner from the outset. At least his game against Notre Dame featured a pretty good first half in which he was throwing the ball well and putting his receivers in good positions. Against Utah he came out and immediately started slinging the ball around like a kid in his backyard. Gardner has always had a tendency to let his mechanics slip, which causes him to throw a lot of sloppy jump passes without setting his feet. He routinely hung his receivers out to dry with misplaced passes over the middle (at one point getting Devin Funchess annihilated with as hard a body shot as I've seen in a while). Gardner never looked comfortable, and even though his first interception was not his fault (Funchess should still catch that ten out of ten times), it was easy to see just minutes into the game that sooner or later Gardner was going to cough up a bad pass that would lead to a turnover. That his ultimate implosion didn't happen until the fourth quarter is a testament to how well he is able to manage sometimes when everything is falling apart with his game. This was a Bad Devin game on par with last year's outings against UConn and Akron, and it casts serious doubt on his viability as Michigan's starter for the rest of the year.
When Gardner is on he is as capable as arguably any quarterback in the country. Look at his games against Notre Dame, Ohio State, Iowa, Indiana, Northwestern ('12), Minnesota ('12), and South Carolina, all of which feature him finding ways to make big plays down the field in the passing game while working as an effective dual threat on the ground. However, the shell-shocked version of Devin Gardner — the one that came out for Akron, UConn, and most of the Big Ten season last year — is a liability prone to turnovers and incapable of anticipating and smartly avoiding a pass rush.
3. The Morris Answer. The problem was that Shane Morris didn't look much better. He threw an almost equally inexcusable interception and ended up completing just four of his 13 pass attempts for 42 yards. Given the circumstances of the game, this wasn't the best possible debut opportunity for Morris, but it speaks to the larger problems that the offense as a whole is having. The receivers are having a hard time getting separation (outside of Funchess, who is banged up after being the offense's focus) and the offensive line looks better but still overwhelmed at points when it comes to blitz pickup. Michigan's run game still can't do enough damage on early run downs to keep the Wolverines ahead of the chains (12 of Michigan's 19 third down attempts were 8 yards or longer).
Giving Shane Morris the keys to the offense might be an answer, but given the state of everything else, it certainly isn't the answer.
Your views on that have a lot to do with whether you believe Michigan can find a way to get Good Devin back, or whether Gardner is too beaten down after a year and a half of getting thrown around like a ragdoll. Saturday's game certainly pointed toward the latter.
4. Poor Damn Defense. Michigan's defense looks to once again be cursed to a year of doing well more than its share in a series of losing efforts. Last night Michigan's defense was an unquestioned bright spot. The first half featured three three-and-outs, an interception, and two 50-plus yard drives that were held to field goal attempts. Outside of Utah's 67 yard screen pass, the defense basically gave up nothing until the final drive of the half, in which it took Utah 16 plays and five minutes to go 54 yards and get a field goal.
Out of halftime Utah took a quick drive to the house using tempo to keep Michigan on its heels. From there Michigan forced two more punts and three more field goal attempts (all three of which came on relatively short fields with two starting on Michigan's side of the 50).
For the game Michigan forced:
- Four three-and-outs.
- Five field goal attempts.
- An interception.
- One offensive touchdown.
- Three drives over 50 yards.
Does Michigan's defense have problems? Yes. Is Michigan's defense the team's problem. Not by a longshot.
5. Punting issues. Both teams had two punt returns in this one. Michigan managed three total return yards with a long of nine. Utah put up 83 yards with a long of 66 and one touchdown. On that touchdown return Michigan only had ten men on the field (that's a coaching issue), but even on the other return Utah managed to turn in a good return because Michigan just doesn't send enough guys down as gunners.
Michigan is stuck with the traditional punt formation as long as Brady Hoke is in town. Add in the kind of coaching mistakes that only send ten guys on the field and Michigan is giving up a ton of ground just because of its punt game.
6. Douchebaggery. Pete touched on it a little after the game, but one of the things that has quickly taken over this year is some really deplorable behavior from fans.
Again: if you want to criticize players or coaches, you are free to do so assuming it is factually accurate and you don't call names or wish bad things on them. There are no exceptions. Michigan's season may be going in the toilet, but decorum around here isn't, and that should stand for the whole fan base and program (but it doesn't. Sigh).
7. Big Ten Dreams. Technically everyone still has a shot at the Big Ten title (except Purdue — it doesn't matter that the Boilermakers haven't played a Big Ten game yet), but holding out hope that Michigan can turn things around is becoming increasingly stupid and contrary to reality.
This team looks lost, its offense looks capable but too prone to mistakes that sidetrack progress, and the defense looks just good enough to keep Michigan in most games long enough to twist the knife a few more times after halftime.
Right now, a .500 Big Ten record and a crappy bowl invite are the biggest goals on the horizon. This is a thing you can say about Michigan football in 2014.
8. They announced that just over 103k people were in attendance. But the time the game kicked back off after a long weather delay it looked like maybe 103 of them stuck around. Its hard to blame anyone for leaving.
9. Third-Down-And-Out. Michigan's offensive issues over the past two years have been caused by mistakes a lot of places, but the handiest way to view Michigan's offensive ineptitude is in the number of bad situations it gets itself into. To better explain what I mean, here is a chart of all Michigan's third down and longs, and the plays that got Michigan into them.
|Third-Down Distance||1st Down Result||2nd Down Result|
|3rd-8||2yd run||Inc pass|
|3rd-10+||0yd run||Inc pass|
|3rd-16||4yd pass*||Inc pass|
|3rd-15||-3yd run||-2yd sack|
|3rd-9||Inc pass||1yd run|
|3rd-14||-4yd sack||Inc pass|
|3rd-8+||-2yd run||9yd pass*|
|3rd-22||-12yd sack||0yd run|
|3rd-8^||-2yd run||Inc pass|
|3rd-14+||-4yd sack||Inc pass|
|3rd-10+||Inc pass||Inc pass|
|3rd-10||Inc pass||Inc pass|
* Penalty against UM on the play
+ Michigan converted third down
^ Michigan converted 4th down attempt following play
That is bad. Michigan had twelve third-down attempts that came from eight or more yards out and only converted four of them (with a fifth conversion coming on a 4th-1 hurry-up sneak, the use of which I approve). Michigan was 9/19 for the day. That means that Michigan was 71% on third down when it was seven yards or fewer and 33% outside of that.
This isn't rocket science: the better a team sets itself up to convert third downs, the easier it is going to be for that team to do so. Michigan has as many attempts at third-downs where it had either went nowhere or backward to set up the attempt as it does attempts inside seven yards. Michigan is not very good at setting itself up for manageable third downs. This is the same story as last year.
There isn't just one culprit, either. Two penalties helped push Michigan outside of a decent range; Michigan had -5 yards total rushing on first down on the above plays, and of those five plays, only one went positive; on second down and long Michigan was just 1/9 passing with a sack allowed. You can blame all of that on Devin Gardner if you would like, but discounting the struggles of the run game to consistently pick up yards (or, at least, not lose yards, which is a huge killer and was also last year) which puts the offense behind the chains is myopic. Morris did set Michigan up well on his first drive of the game (Michigan converted a 3rd-7 and a 3rd-1 before Morris threw a pick), but when Michigan went into obvious passing mode Michigan got into a 3rd-14 and two 3rd-10s.
This is where the failings of Michigan's offense are most apparent. The thing that overall looks sloppy and disjointed is so and shows up so when you look at the sheer number of stalled drives. In the first half Michigan stalled on a field goal drive, punted after drives of 40, 31, and 15 yards, and had a three-and-out and an interception (which hurt double because it came after Michigan was working with a short field and about to enter the redzone). The Wolverines, for a second straight year are unable to sustain anything offensively. Drives die between the 35-yard lines early in the game, the Wolverines get behind, panic sets in and the second half becomes a turnover nightmare.
I guess I don't know how you fix that. I wish I did, or that someone did, because Michigan's offense needs to find answers, lest it repeat the same stalled drive like it landed the lead in a stage reproduction of Groundhog Day.
Does Morris give Michigan that play to play consistency? Is the OL just too young? Can we blame Hoke for this (hint: yes we can)?
Year four and there are still a lot of questions surrounding an offense that hasn't gotten any better.