Michigan football is in the throes of a three-year slide, with last year’s outcome mirroring Rich Rodriguez’s 2010 swan song. In Rich Rod’s third year the Wolverines won seven regular-season games, then lost their bowl game with a listless performance. Last year, Brady Hoke’s team’s strong start again devolved into a seven-win season, which was capped by another uninspired bowl loss.
Rodriguez, not athletic director Dave Brandon’s boy, was sent packing after Year Three. Hoke, Brandon’s protege, has been given a longer rope–including, this year, an expensive new offensive coordinator. Brandon, meanwhile, is hustling to counter fans’ eroding desire to plunk down major-league dollars for, good grief, Appalachian State.
Last year, I predicted (sorry) that the U-M would represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl. The defense seemed to have stabilized. The offense had big-time bookend tackles, a slew of highly regarded interior offensive linemen, good wideouts, and, in Devin Gardner, a playmaking quarterback. Should have been good, right? Maybe a lot better than good.
Shame on me. The interior offensive line just wasn’t ready to play. Michigan had a weak running game and porous pass protection. And offensive coordinator Al Borges struggled with the direction of his attack. Was this an under-the-center power and pro-passing team–his preferred direction–or was this still the spread team inherited from Rich Rod?
The same conundrum has stymied Michigan since Lloyd Carr retired. Rodriguez was brought in to replace Carr’s power/pro-passing offense with the spread. In a pure spread attack, all plays allow the quarterback to “option” a particular defender. In a “read option” run, for example, a defensive end may not be blocked; the QB then “reads” that player’s moves when deciding whether to keep the ball, or hand it off to the running back.
Like Bo Schembechler and Gary Moeller before him, Carr channeled the ghost of Vince Lombardi: perfect one or two running plays and force the defense to overcompensate to stop you. Punish those overcompensations–and keep the defense honest with a sophisticated, drop-back passing attack.
Rich Rod’s first year, when he tried to play the spread without a running quarterback, was a debacle. Once he recruited the mobile option quarterbacks and light, fast receivers the spread requires, his teams put up big numbers. Unfortunately, all too often, Michigan’s opponents put up even more points. Some have argued that the lightning offense left the defense on the field too long. Others argued that the Rich Rod defenses were incoherent, if not inept.
Rich Rod managed to do what no one thought was possible: reduce Michigan to mediocrity. During his tenure they were 6-18 in the Big Ten–and 0-6 against archrivals OSU and MSU.
If I were AD, I wouldn’t have fired Rodriguez after just three years. I think any coach, let alone one building an all-new system, deserves more time to make an impact. But, I admit, if I had made such a decision, maybe I should have been fired.
By bringing in Hoke, Brandon announced that Michigan’s fling with the spread was over. In a reversion to Michigan’s past, Hoke’s a power and pro-style coach who prefers to beat the other team up, control the clock, and use the QB as, primarily, a passer.
Though he inherited players recruited for the spread, in particular QB Denard Robinson, Hoke found a way to make it work in his first year. Unlike Rich Rod, he didn’t try to run his system the day he walked in the door. Running a quasi-run/spread offense, and winning more than their share of close games, Michigan finished with a near-miraculous 11-2 record.
Hoke’s luck didn’t hold. In 2012 the Wolverines won their first five games, and then lost the rest save for a bizarre three-overtime win against Indiana and an 11-point win over a tepid Purdue team. Last year, Hoke’s guys also won their first five, lost in four OTs to a not-very-good Penn State team, then won easily against Indiana and–in three OTs–against Northwestern. Yeah, they lost six of the final eight, same as in 2010, Rich Rod’s Waterloo.
It seems that in the post-Carr era, Wolverine fans can count on wins only against complete meatballs, or teams from Indiana. That said, last year Michigan should have beaten Penn State, and a different outcome for the losses against Ohio State, Iowa, and Nebraska were all well within reach. Change four plays (and 11 points) in the season, and the Wolverines would have been 11-1 before the bowl game, losing only to MSU, a game that was closer than the score indicated (but, sure, MSU was better).
Of course, change three other plays, and Michigan loses to Northwestern, (wretched) Akron, and (awful beyond awful) UConn to finish with a 4-8 free fall into complete Palooka Land. Even wins against Indiana and Notre Dame were close, losable affairs. And, in this hypothetical change-a-few-plays universe, if U-M had finished 11-1, they’d have faced an actual team in the bowl game, and, without Devin Gardner, wasn’t a 38-14 loss bad enough?
In addition to its very green interior offensive line, Michigan lacked an offensive structure that took advantage of its obvious assets: a strong-armed and mobile QB with a remarkable ability to extend plays, very good wide receivers (who could block, too), and quality offensive tackles.
Hoke’s teams posted some of their most impressive results when the coaches let this talent run free. Exhibit One is the bowl loss to South Carolina in 2013, where Michigan put twenty-eight points on the board against the Gamecocks’ thirteenth-ranked defense–the second-most the school had allowed in the season. Exhibit Two is Devin Gardner’s incredible offensive show against OSU last November, losing on a failed two-point play with no time left on the clock.
More often, though, the Wolverines too often went Very Old School, trying to establish a running game from under center with classic “power” or “isolation” plays. Instead of playing in space, Michigan played to its weaknesses. In the PSU game, for example, Fitz Toussaint, a solid runner, gained just twenty-seven yards on twenty-seven attempts. Since 1949, according to MGoBlog.com’s Brian Cook, “[n]o other back has gotten as many carries without gaining at least twice as many yards.” And so “27 for 27” became a sort of perverse mantra in the Michigan blogosphere.
Meanwhile, in the same PSU game, Devin Gardner was tearing up the place, gaining 146 yards on the ground and another 240 on twenty-eight passes. You could argue that ultimately, Toussaint’s grim “27 for 27” had less to do with the outcome than the fact that Michigan’s field goal kicking went into the tank, missing three that would have salted the game away.
Still, 27 for 27, baby. At the end of the season, Al Borges was fired.
The fan reaction to the team’s weakness and rising ticket prices has not been, exactly, a stampede away from the stadium. But the long waiting list for season tickets no longer exists, and with this year’s lackluster home schedule–no MSU, OSU, Notre Dame, or Nebraska–2014 might become a perfect storm of ennui.
Last year, the athletic department sent out a single email to students asking them to renew their season tickets. This year, the tally of notices was five, and the deadline for re-upping was pushed out to the end of April. Yet student ticket sales will be in the 13,000 to 14,000 range this year–down 6,000 from last year and one-third less than the 21,000 sold in 2012, after Hoke’s miraculous first year.
Students pay $295 for season tickets this year. That’s $42 a pop, compared to a Big Ten average of $18.50. Nonstudent fans, meanwhile, will plunk down $75 per game (counting the seat license) for the cheapest season tickets, in the end zone. For that, they’ll get to watch Appalachian State, Miami (Ohio), Utah, Minnesota, Penn State, Indiana, and Maryland.
Unless Michigan is running the table and the weather is primo (and maybe not even then), the market value of those seats won’t be half what they cost. If U-M loses a couple, my guess is the entire slate might be purchased for $100 (or less) on Stadium Blvd., prior to games.
Dave Brandon’s solution seems to be more aggressive marketing. At a spring talk he said, according to MGoBlog. com, “We all think of every home Michigan football game like a miniature Super Bowl … We know who our competitor is: your 60-inch, high-definition, soon-to-be-3-D television set that you will choose instead of my $65 ticket.”
Presumably, that was the thinking behind his proposal–shot down by the regents–for fireworks at the Penn State and Miami games. For many fans, though, the idea that a lousy game against Miami could or should be a “miniature” Super Bowl misses the mark. Here’s how a fan calling himself “French West Indian” responded to Brandon on MGoBlog.com:
Well that’s the problem. I’m a longtime football fan but I [freaking] hate the Super Bowl. Hate, hate, hate it. Too much hype. Too many commercials. Too much crappy pop music. Too much nationalistic jingoism. Too much celeb [BS] and who’s-who. Too much corporate douche-baggery and stupid halftime shows filled with illuminati symbolism. If that’s what Michigan is, then I guess I’m just not Michigan anymore.
The externalities of Michigan football–tailgating, coming back to Ann Arbor to wander around campus, and traditions going back decades will always have value. And Brandon has found new ways to fill the stadium outside the season, with one-off hockey and soccer spectaculars. But playing good football against good teams has always been the heart of the athletic department’s business model–and that’s something Ann Arbor hasn’t really seen since Lloyd Carr retired.
Given all this, is the extended rope Brandon is giving Hoke justified?
Compared to Rodriguez at this point, Hoke has fared a bit better (2-4) in the War against the States (MSU and OSU). He also owns a decent 15-9 record within the conference. He is 19-2 at home–not a typo and, yeah, good. And, here’s the real news–Michigan played everyone on their schedule tough last year. Every single game, save for KSU, was within reach–and, in the bowl game, U-M was without Gardner, the only player who made an otherwise feeble offense even vaguely plausible.
In 2013 Gardner averaged 8.6 yards per pass attempt. (MSU, the conference champ, averaged 6.9.) Plus, DG accomplished this with the worst offensive line play I can remember in my lifetime. Stats? Well, there are 123 teams in the FBS, the Division previously known as One. In 2013 U-M was number 113 in yards per run attempt. They were number 117 in sack yards given up. They were number 123 (yeah, last) in tackles for loss allowed. Considering that left tackle Taylor Lewan was the eleventh player picked in the NFL draft and right tackle Michael Schofield was drafted in the third round, plainly, center and guard play were lacking. To be charitable.
Hoke, in a stunning off-season development, brought in Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to coach the Michigan offense. Nussmeier’s success at Bama can’t be questioned–but Nussmeier’s resources at Bama hardly equate to what he’ll have to work with at Michigan. In both the Spring Game and the August open scrimmage, the Michigan offense didn’t look any better than it had last spring.
If Michigan can generate any old sort of running game with minimal hits on Gardner, they will be fine. But if, again, most of the running game has to come from Gardner, he will get hit and maybe a lot. Devin can throw the ball (and is a fine scrambler), and even after losing terrific wide receiver Jeremy Gallon (and solid WR Drew Dileo) he has plenty of targets, including Devin Funchess, Jehu Chesson, and Amara Darboh.
The question, again, is how the coaches will use him. Devin is still their one true playmaker. But his number-one attribute is his feet–he has a good arm, but he is a raggedy drop-back QB–and putting him under center wastes Michigan’s best asset, his ability to freelance.
Hoke’s strategy on offense is to have a very generalized direction, and then delegate to his OC. Unless U-M morphs into a pass-first spread, channeling the ghosts of Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings) by way of Rich Rod (that would be my suggestion but, ain’t happening), Nussmeier has to find some way to keep defenses honest, some way to allow Gardner premium passing downs and to run the clock at the end of games. That means surgery on the offensive line–which is already on life support after losing Lewan and Schofield.
Nussmeier will run a pro-style offense, though the running game will be primarily zone blocked as opposed to the “man” or gapped block Borges favored. But the OC is already saying (and this is hopeful) that he isn’t necessarily grounded in any one way. He will do what he needs to do to move the ball.
The defense is another matter. Greg Mattison has been piecing together a lineup with depth and ability over the past couple of years. His defenses have been good at times, erratic at others, but it has been a very young team using, mostly, the assets left behind from the Rodriguez years. This changes in 2014. With eighteen of his top twenty-two players returning, Mattison has depth all over the board.
As of this writing, Mattison has moved his number-one playmaker, LB Jake Ryan, from the strong (TE) side of the field to the middle. Some commentators question whether taking a top player away from a position where he has been a success makes sense, but, plainly, the decision is as mutable as it is logical–it gives Ryan more opportunity to be involved in every play. With returning veterans Desmond Morgan and James Ross, and a number of highly regarded younger players, such as Ben Gedeon and Royce Jenkins-Stone, Mattison’s LB core should be solid.
On the defensive line Mattison prefers to rotate players, and he has more than ten who seem ready to play. He has run stuffers (Willie Henry, Ondre Pipkins, Maurice Hurst, Matt Godin, Ryan Glasgow) and pass rushers (Frank Clark, Mario Ojemudia, Taco Charlton), and guys who might do either (Tom Strobel, Chris Wormley, Brennan Beyer). This has the potential to be U-M’s best DL since 2006, with Lamar Woodley and Alan Branch. Certainly it is the deepest.
Michigan’s only true question mark on defense is safety. My judgment is that the time has come for junior Jarrod Wilson to break out at free safety and that he will have a good season. At strong safety there is a raft of highly recruited alternatives (Dymonte Thomas, Delano Hill, Jeremy Clark), and that doesn’t count moving a corner over the top. Blake Countess may end up playing in the slot (many teams now use three WRs as a norm), leaving room for uber-super-frosh Jabrill Peppers to compete most anywhere in the defensive backfield. This should be the strongest secondary since 1997 (Charles Woodson, Marcus Ray, Andre Weathers).
It is hard to say how the combination of “probably a very good defense” and “hell if I know” offense will work. But given the weak competition, Michigan should win all seven games in Ann Arbor. They are unlikely to beat Notre Dame, OSU, or MSU on the road, though ND is definitely in play. Rutgers and Northwestern on the road? Let’s call it 9-3 and a good throttling by some middle-of-the-road SEC team in the Taco Booty and Weed Eater Melon Bowl.
And, yeah, regardless, Hoke and his crew should and will be back in 2015. It is hard to imagine any other outcome, and, absent a complete meltdown, I don’t see Brandon tossing Hoke aside.
The question is, how will the fans respond to another good, blah, or awful season? It is an odd time indeed when the action off the field (will the fans show up?) seems as newsworthy as that between the lines.