Monday, September 26, 2011

Michigan's Record Improves to 4-0 as Team Prepares for Big Ten Conference Play

Well, that was interesting. For a game that I expected to be decided in the fourth quarter, it really wasn't. San Diego State's running or passing attack could not get past Michigan's visibly improved defense. Despite currently being ranked No. 1 in getting turnovers, the Wolverines' defense is neither spectacular nor atrocious. They surprised a lot of people, however, by completely shutting down San Diego State's offense (which was supposed to be threatening) in the first half.

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison's "bend but don't break" philosophy appears to be exactly what Michigan needed, and it's worked in transitioning them from a defense that was awful last year to a defense that is not bad. I had said back in July that one of the expectations for Hoke's first year was that there must be remarkable improvement on defense. Well, if the defense continues to play as they have, against teams that make me nervous, then they have improved remarkably. We still have yet to hit the meat of the Big Ten, but Michigan has finished its non-conference schedule undefeated. Michigan escaped two of those games (Western Michigan and Notre Dame), and dominated the rest (Eastern Michigan and San Diego State). Given that trend, all the signs indicate that this is a team that is improving week to week.

Before the season, I had thought it would be satisfactory for Hoke to finish his first season at 8-4. When Michigan defeated Notre Dame (a game I expected us to lose), I thought Michigan was suddenly in a position to go 9-3. Now that they defeated San Diego State, a team I expected to narrowly upset Michigan, it's possible the Wolverines may even go 10-2 in the regular season. I'm still worried about Nebraska, and the games against Michigan State and Ohio State have gone from difficult to definite toss-ups. The Spartans face continued question marks on their offensive line and, predictably, the Buckeyes aren't happy with either their rookie quarterbacks or their rookie head coach.

Meanwhile, Brady Hoke couldn't have asked for a better start to his head coaching career at Michigan. The start of the Big Ten schedule is not daunting for the Wolverines as they face a beleaguered Minnesota, whose head coach will likely not be on the sidelines because he has checked himself into a hospital to resolve his recurring seizure situation. After Minnesota, Michigan faces Northwestern as their first road test, which could prove difficult if the Wildcats show a significant difference in the passing attack with the return of quarterback Dan Persa. The real test, however, will come against Michigan State in East Lansing, as the Wolverines look to snap a three-game losing streak which the Spartans have been clinging to ever since the days of Rich Rodriguez.

Despite Michigan's 4-0 start, it's becoming increasingly difficult to analyze this team. Denard Robinson is still the effective and explosive runner—he put up a net of 200 rushing yards against the Aztecs—but his passing game still needs work. Denard only completed 8 of 17 passes and threw two interceptions. You can credit that somewhat to San Diego State's defense, but some of it came from Denard making poor decisions. His receivers, specifically tight end Kevin Koger, did not catch even the easy passes that Denard made, which further hurts his completion percentage but admittedly isn't all on him. It did force Michigan to rely on more of a running attack, but fortunately the combination of Vincent Smith and Fitzgerald Toussaint was able to take some of the load off Denard's legs—which, of course, is always a good thing.

Perhaps the biggest and most observable difference to Michigan's play on both sides of the ball was the "fast start." Michigan finally broke the stigma of not scoring a touchdown in the first quarter of a given game, and by halftime the Wolverines were up 21-0. The third quarter, however, was sloppy. Michigan turned the ball over four times, losing the turnover battle 4-3 for the first time this season. Nevertheless, Michigan maintained its lead and finished the game 28-7, allowing San Diego State only one touchdown.

It's easy to say that Michigan's defense was the reason San Diego State failed to capitalize on many of its drives, but had Aztec quarterback Ryan Lindley been more accurate in his throws, it would have been a much closer game. Michigan was able to stop the run and Heisman candidate Ronnie Hillman by winning the battle in the trenches. The Wolverines' front seven was able to get enough pressure on Lindley that forced bad throws. I said before that San Diego State would be a good test for Michigan's defense. Unless San Diego State simply had an off-day with emotions running high because of the Brady Hoke factor, then I'd say the Wolverines passed the test ably. With the exception of the third quarter, this is how Michigan will have to play to stop Michigan State, who rely on a similar establish-run offense and then destroy you with the passing attack. If Michigan can get penetration with their defensive line, Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins will find himself in a lot of tough situations, and Michigan can make a game out of it. It's only when Michigan State is able to establish the run that they've been able to give Cousins liberty in the passing game.

Understandably, a lot of Michigan fans may be asking themselves if 2011 is going to be a repeat of the past two years. Michigan started out 4-0 in non-conference games both times and also won their Big Ten opener. Then, of course, by the time the real part of the Big Ten schedule hit, the Wolverines buckled and "the wheels fell off the bus." This year, I had thought that losses to either Notre Dame or San Diego State would propel the Wolverines to approach the Big Ten with something to prove, and hopefully that would mean better play. Obviously, however, since Michigan didn't lose the non-conference games I expected them to, they will head into the conference undefeated, and any losses they suffer this season will come presumably at the hands of the Big Ten. That is, unless Brady Hoke can turn Michigan around in one year.

The differences between this year and 2009/2010 appear to be palpable. Michigan won its first games in 2009 and 2010 by escaping them narrowly, or because the offense bailed out Michigan's inept defense in the fourth quarter. We had seen the warning signs when Michigan faced UMass but refused to accept what we saw and what it meant. When we eventually faced Michigan State that year, we couldn't hide from the truth anymore. We couldn't hide from the simple fact that our defense was bad and wasn't going to stop anybody.

Fast forward a year and we have a new coach, but we also still have those old feelings, the dread that we'll see the wheels fall off the bus again. As such, both those who support Brady Hoke or were skeptical of him approached the non-conference schedule with caution, and sometimes we're looking for excuses of why we won. That's because we were burned so bad the past three years. Is it really unrealistic to see improvement? I want to say no, to say that the improvement is there, but I had let my optimism get the better of me in 2010. It was Rodriguez's third year, and we should have seen a difference. Now it's Brady Hoke's first year, and a lot of us secretly expected Michigan to go back to square one, but amazingly that hasn't happened. Hoke's first year will at least be as good as Rodriguez's third, and that's saying a lot. I said I'd settle for an 8-4 season with a victory over Michigan State or Ohio State, but Brady Hoke never said that. He wants to go all the way.

After an offseason that made us giddy with the pouring in of elite recruits, Michigan fans may have started to think that it was too good to be true. The season was going to be sobering. We weren't going to win against Notre Dame, and we'd have to sit through watching another incompetent defense. Then we apparently forgot that Brady Hoke is Brady Hoke, and this is Michigan for God sakes.

Have we become so accustomed to disappointment from the past three years that we can't even consider the possibility that we might actually be a contender for the Big Ten title? Michigan will eventually face challenges against Nebraska, Michigan State, Iowa, and Ohio State, but we can go into those games with the knowledge that we at least have a chance. More than a chance, maybe. It's not like when we faced Indiana last year: Michigan didn't desperately escape a team they were expected to beat, they dominated them. They dominated a San Diego State team that quite frankly made me nervous. And say what you will about Notre Dame, but they'll turn out to be a good team this year, and we'll look back and be satisfied that Michigan did what they had to do to win the game.

Michigan's fifth home game in a row is played against Minnesota, a team that almost staged a comeback against USC but later got destroyed by North Dakota State. Jerry Kill has his work cut out for him, and the Gophers will struggle to even make it to a bowl game this year. What's even worse is that Minnesota probably won't have their head coach on the sidelines for the Michigan game. Kill has decided that his seizure disorder, a side-effect of him having cancer, has become an obstacle and has checked himself into Minnesota's Mayo Clinic until it is resolved. The Gophers also have painful question marks at quarterback. Minnesota fans insist that true freshman Max Shortell is the best option and that the coaches should put Marquis Gray back at wide receiver, but even with Shortell under center the Gophers hardly have a dangerous offense. Their defense simply gave up against North Dakota State, and penalties will continue to be a nightmare for the team this year. Jerry Kill, who when he was first hired reminded people that he can't work miracles, has said that Minnesota is about as good as a high school football team. This is strange considering how well they seemed to fare against USC, but the prognosis is that the Gophers have gotten worse as the season goes on. If this continues, Minnesota may struggle to win four games. Kill's only had spring and fall camps to work with.

The Wolverines should have no trouble beating the Golden Gophers in the Big House, but overconfidence has led to upsets more than once in college football. Denard Robinson will have to settle down in how he throws the ball, and Al Borges would be wise to script easy passes in the beginning to build his confidence. Borges will also likely run Denard all over the field, which Minnesota will struggle to defend. 

It's not exactly an exciting way to begin Michigan's trek through the Big Ten conference, but Brady Hoke will take wins where he can get them. The start to his first year could not have been smoother. Michigan's schedule will become increasingly difficult as the season goes on, but as we all know, it's always easier to stomach mistakes and steadily make improvements when you're winning.

Friday, September 23, 2011

How Good is San Diego State?

When Brady Hoke left San Diego State in January for his dream job at Michigan, Rocky Long received an offer to come with him. There was already wide speculation that San Diego State's athletic director Jim Sterk would attempt to make Long the replacement head coach of the Aztecs, since Long already possessed experience as a head coach. However, it wasn't certain if Long wanted to be a head coach again. He had achieved moderate success at his alma mater, New Mexico, before eventually stepping down and taking a defensive coordinator position at San Diego State under Hoke.

Hoke wanted Long to know he had the option of coming to Michigan if he wasn't interested in being a head coach. "He called me," Long said. "He knew that Jim Sterk was going to offer me this job. He called me and said, 'Well, what are you going to do?' and I said, 'I don't know.' He said, 'Well, you can come to Michigan if you want.' Now, I don't know if that was being offered a job or not. I don't know if it was going to be the same job there or not the same job, but he did say I could come to Michigan if I wanted to."

It was an intriguing offer, to be sure, but Long couldn't help but think of the program that he and Hoke had worked so hard to establish. He didn't want the Aztecs to start over. Did he consider the Michigan job? Yes. Did being a head coach again have anything to do with Long's decision to stay? "No, I think that was the least of my motivation," he said. "The biggest part of my motivation was that we had kids here who had made tremendous progress from where they had started and I hated to see them start over again."

Rocky Long was instrumental in helping Brady Hoke build the Aztecs' program. Before Hoke and Long arrived, San Diego State was ranked 113th in yards allowed and points allowed. By 2010 (Hoke's second year), the Aztecs were ranked 43rd in yards allowed and 36th in points allowed. They came within five points of beating a TCU team that would go on to whip Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, and after a good 8-4 season, San Diego State faced Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl and won. It was the Aztecs' first bowl victory in 41 years. Hoke took a team that hadn't been to a bowl game since 1998 and put them on the map.

There's no lack of appreciation for what Brady Hoke did for San Diego State. "Hoke's legacy, albeit a short one, is that he brought a sense of toughness to a program that always had good athletes but constantly seemed to underachieve," said Kevin Gemmell for the San Diego Union Tribune.

Hoke's departure for Michigan hardly came as a surprise to anyone in San Diego. When players learned that Michigan had fired Rich Rodriguez, there was a strong sense that Hoke might receive the job offer. As further evidence of this, Hoke had said when he first took the head coaching position at San Diego State that Michigan was his dream job. So, the Aztecs understood why he left but were still sad to see him go.

When Aztec quarterback Ryan Lindley was asked about Hoke's departure immediately after the fact, Lindley said, "You know, you're upset, and it's something that this whole process since last week, since hearing about them firing their coach, you're kind of crossing your fingers, hoping it doesn't go down that way, but you knew it was a possibility. So, I mean, we were all kind of braced for that, and I think with what's gone on in the last twenty-four hours, with Coach Long coming in and Mr. Sterk just acting as quickly as possible, it's been a great situation—considering."

Since most of the players were on break during the hire, Hoke never got the chance to say goodbye to them in person. He was forced to send text messages. "You never do it the right way," Hoke said in a recent press conference. "They were on fall break, so no one was there, only the guys in San Diego. You send a text because you couldn't get them all together. There was a time element and everything, obviously. We had a full team meeting when I left Ball State, my alma mater, that was hard to leave and hard to leave those kids. So we were fortunate to be able to do that. We couldn't do it out there [in San Diego]."

Coaching transitions are rarely smooth, and few would say that losing a successful coach is a "good situation." However, it seems like everything worked out as well as possible for both Michigan and San Diego State. The fact that Rocky Long stayed allowed the Aztecs to maintain a good sense of continuity, which allowed them to continue the momentum that Hoke established. Brady Hoke might not have been able to bring Long with him as defensive coordinator, but it allowed him to hire Greg Mattison. Hoke went to work trying to bring back Michigan to what it used to be, and Long kept up what Hoke started in San Diego. And as much as the Aztecs appreciate what Hoke did for them, they appreciate Rocky Long's decision even more. He stayed when he just as easily could have gone. The results are that both teams had successful starts to their respective seasons and each is entering the contest at 3-0.

In a game that is likely going to run high with emotion for both sides, San Diego State will face Michigan tomorrow in the Big House. It may prove to be the Wolverines' toughest non-conference game of the season. The Aztecs are coming off an exciting comeback win over Washington State, who recently dominated their opponents offensively despite struggling to put together winning seasons in 2009 and 2010. San Diego State's game against Michigan will be even bigger, in front of 110,000 fans on a stage that many of them have never played before. Will beating Hoke be a factor? The Aztecs say they're more focused on Michigan's players than the coaches.

They might be nervous if they didn't have enough weapons to give the developing Michigan defense headaches. San Diego State's running back, Ronnie Hillman, was a Freshman All-American in 2010 and put up 1,532 total yards and 17 total touchdowns last year. (The Wolverines, on the other hand, haven't had a running back break 1,000 yards in a season since Mike Hart.) Hillman has also been in early Heisman talks.

Meanwhile, San Diego State's quarterback Ryan Lindley has developed into a prototypical pro-style passer under the tutelage of Al Borges (now Michigan's offensive coordinator), and Lindley put up 3,830 total yards and 28 total touchdowns in 2010. He had continued to be effective so far this year and will likely be a fourth or fifth round NFL draft pick. The Aztecs lost their excellent receivers to graduation, but Rocky Long fixed the gap at wide receiver by bringing over Colin Lockett from cornerback, and he has been getting a lot of receptions—enough to where some consider him Lindley's new favorite target.

The Aztec defense, like Michigan's, is a work in progress. Michigan has switched back to 4-3 defensive scheme under Greg Mattison, since the Wolverines could never seem to be effective under the 3-3-5 that Rich Rodriguez insisted then-coordinator Greg Robinson (who had sparse knowledge of the 3-3-5) coach. However, at San Diego State, Rocky Long is the master of the 3-3-5, since he practically invented it. "What Rocky Long has done—and I've been lucky, I've coached with Rocky twice at UCLA and San Diego State, and against him when I was at Oregon, I've seen both sides of him—he's taken a 3-3 concept and created a lot of looks from the 3-3 that makes it hardly recognizable as a 3-3," said Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges. "What seems to be very helter-skelter is not at all. It's a very disciplined style: every guy's in a gap, everyone has a responsibility, coverage is sound, but it's not what you see every week, and that requires a little more preparation. It's almost like facing a wishbone team when you've never seen a wishbone team."

When Brady Hoke was coach of the Aztecs, he allowed Long to run the scheme that Long knew best, and that happened to be the 3-3-5. Hoke has done the same with Mattison and the 4-3. Instead of micromanage, the effect that Hoke brings to his defenses—since Hoke considers himself a defensive-minded coach—is a foundation of fundamentals and technique combined with a strong aspect of physical and mental toughness. This effect, at least early on, appears to be palpable, and it's largely the reason Hoke was successful in rebuilding the program and eventually was offered the Michigan job.

What made Aztec fans so pleased with Rocky Long was that he said he wasn't going to change anything that Hoke cemented. That sense of toughness was going to continue on both sides of the ball. Long also doesn't micromanage his coordinators either. When asked about the differences and difficulties in being a coordinator versus being a head coach, Long answered, "I think there's real problems if you don't trust the guys on the other side of the ball. I think a head coach that is a micromanager cannot do it and if he tries to do it, he's ruining his football team." Long went on to say that what he shares with his coordinators (like Hoke did with him) is a philosophy, a vision of what they'd like to see the team become. While Long serves as his own defensive coordinator, he brought in Andy Ludwig from Cal-Berkeley to be San Diego State's offensive coordinator. (Ludwig runs the same pro-style offense that Borges essentially did, and this continuity has made Aztec fans very happy, and it's one of the main reasons they have started out 3-0.) Long said that Ludwig is in "complete control" over the offense during games, but that their philosophical similarities allow for that coaching trust.

If Michigan fans aren't worried about losing to San Diego State, then they should be. Despite my continued efforts to remind the Michigan faithful that the Aztecs are not to be underestimated, there are still some people who think that Michigan will win simply because we have Denard. However, my point stands: this will not be an easy game. The Aztecs have more than enough motivation to eek out a win on what seems to be an unsuspecting Michigan home crowd, and Rocky Long's strategy ("It doesn't matter what conference you're in; we can play anyone, anywhere, anytime") has allowed them to snap losing streaks against BCS teams. Michigan does have an advantage over San Diego State, if only because Brady Hoke and Al Borges are incredibly familiar with the Aztec personnel and what they like to run. However, the Aztecs' recent trend means that an upset is more than possible.

Thankfully, Michigan's coaches and players aren't overlooking their opponents. Brady Hoke even tried to get the game "un-scheduled" when he first arrived in Ann Arbor. He had been a part of scheduling the game when he was back in San Diego because he thought his Aztec team would be good enough to play Michigan. Now, he's on the other side, and it's starting to feel a little awkward. However, both Hoke and Long have said that "there's no animosity" between them.

The two opposing defenses will have a difficult time containing each other's offenses. Michigan's run defense will struggle against Ronnie Hillman, who constantly seems to make players miss, and San Diego State will have the unenviable task of containing Denard Robinson. Ryan Lindley is also a far more developed passer who will be the best test to Michigan's secondary that they will face before heading into the Big Ten and against such teams as Northwestern and Michigan State, who each rely on heavy passing games.

The good news for both teams is that a loss does not affect either's conference standing. Both Michigan and San Diego State, while they admittedly would be satisfied with a win, have winning their conference as a far greater priority. Moreover, and I've stressed this before, a loss should not be humiliating for either team. Michigan fans should be pleased with how much Hoke has developed the Aztecs and, regardless of how the game ends, what it means for Hoke's new team. Meanwhile, for San Diego State, any result could spark momentum when they return to Qualcomm Stadium for their bout against TCU: a win and they'll want to continue the momentum, a loss and they'll want to get it back.

Both teams should also be pleased with their head coaches. Even if the Aztecs don't defeat Hoke's Wolverines, San Diego State's fans should still be happy to have Rocky Long, who considers himself blessed to have a second chance to be a head coach and who has done a fantastic job with the start of the 2011 season. The Aztecs haven't been 3-0 since 1981, and a lot of that is thanks to what Long has done to keep the consistency of Hoke's foundation. When he was re-introduced as San Diego State's head coach, Long was gracious and thankful for the fans' immediate support.

"I'd like you all to know how excited I am and how proud I am to be a part of the Aztec nation," he said. "And I promise you one thing: we will do everything we can, we will work our butts off to make sure we have a winning football team here that goes to bowl games."

Monday, September 19, 2011

Wolverines Defeat Eagles Handily, but Must Continue to Improve

Hopefully, for Ron English's sake, last Saturday's game will be the last time that Eastern Michigan plays the Wolverines. English has a tough enough time getting wins without scheduling Michigan to boot. There is small upside for Eastern Michigan, however: the payout. EMU's athletic department gets $465,000 for playing Michigan in the Big House.

For the Wolverines, there is little one can analyze from a win that was realistically expected. Although the team got off to another rough start, something which has become a recent trend, Michigan eventually played how it was supposed to and finished 31-3. There should be some praise for the defense, which prevented Eastern Michigan from scoring a single touchdown, but Eastern Michigan is a MAC team. Michigan's offense has struggled to find a rhythm in the beginning. Including all three first games, Michigan has been outscored by opponents 21-0 in the first quarter. (Last week, Notre Dame scored two unanswered touchdowns, and in the first week, Western Michigan scored one.) Michigan's offense has yet to score a single touchdown in the first quarter in any given game this season.

When Michigan's offense found its rhythm, it was effective, but there are some concerns. Offensive coordinator Al Borges seems unafraid to utilize speedy quarterback Denard Robinson's legs when the need arises, and the offense's halfback play has shown that the need arises quite often. The tailbacks do take a great deal of the load off of Denard, but the Wolverines have yet to establish a consistent running game utilizing them.

Across the Michigan fanbase, some people don't feel this is necessarily a bad thing when you have Denard as a threat. In fact, MGoBlog argues that the offense ought to be based on Denard's legs (i.e. his ability to run). However, personally, I get nervous whenever I see Denard take off on a designed run up the middle, because of the chance that Denard will fumble—which he did in the Eastern game—or that he'll get injured.

Michigan simply cannot get away with running Denard so much when the Big Ten schedule hits. I cringed numerous times when Denard ran into Eastern's defensive line and when he got stuffed on several runs. I'm not saying that I think Denard should never run. He is deadliest on the quarterback scramble, when he must create something out of nothing. On those plays, I am significantly less nervous, because Denard frequently gets to the outside, picks up enough yards for a first down or close to it, and then he steps out of bounds before he gets hit. This, I think, is the best use of his athletic ability, whereas having him run up the middle as though he were a halfback is asking for trouble. Michigan is dividing the carrying load between multiple running backs: Fitzgerald Toussiant, Michael Shaw, Vincent Smith, and for the last part of the game, freshman Thomas Rawls. Smith in particular seems the most improved out of all the running backs, although Toussaint and Shaw can consistently pick up good yardage. This is a good sign but it must be tempered with notion that Michigan hasn't hit the meat of the Big Ten schedule, where Michigan's running game will be harshly tested. 

The running backs scarcely put up yards against Notre Dame in the second week, which forced Al Borges to focus more on Denard's running and passing. It was clearly a priority to Borges and Brady Hoke to return some of the focus to Michigan's running backs, but Eastern Michigan, despite how well they may have been prepared under Ron English, cannot be seen as a truly adequate test.

Don't knock the Eagles, however. English has established a good running attack that gave Michigan some trouble in the first half, and it will carry over to the MAC, where they will be more successful. There is an even better indication that the Eastern Michigan program is turning around under Ron English's guidance. They have gained confidence with two wins to start the season, and although they lost to Michigan and play Penn State next week in Happy Valley, the Eagles start their conference play at home against Akron. It will be a far better year for EMU, who have a very good chance of going 4-8 or even 5-7. When the Eagles faced Michigan, they made a game of it. English should be proud of the signs of improvement seen in his team.

And despite the Wolverines winning 31-3 against Eastern Michigan, they'll need to continue to make improvements as well. Play on the field was hardly perfect. Denard Robinson's accuracy in the first quarter was frustrating to watch, as he missed most of his passes and threw an interception. Like against Notre Dame and Western Michigan, he seemed to make better reads and throws as the game progressed, and he racked up a few touchdowns with passes to tight end Kevin Koger and wide receiver Drew Dileo. Denard finished the game with a total of 293 yards, 198 rushing and 95 passing.

Michigan's defense didn't have its bearings early, but eventually they got settled and remained stout. They forced a fumble on EMU's Javonti Greene and recovered it. Michigan safety Thomas Gordon also made a one-handed inception. Jordan Kovacs and Brandin Hawthrone led the team in tackles, and Craig Roh achieved a sack for six yards. Finally, in what was perhaps the most relief for Michigan, placekicker Brendon Gibbons made a 21-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. The special teams unit has largely been a question mark for the Wolverines, and it's clear Brady Hoke is taking his time with them. You can check out highlights of the game here.

It was a good win for Michigan, but the Wolverines must improve week to week if they expect to be competitive against the upcoming Big Ten teams. Michigan's last remaining non-conference game is against Hoke's previous coaching job before Michigan, San Diego State. The Aztecs have continued the winning ways that Hoke established, and they are now 3-0 after an impressive win over Army and an even more impressive one over Washington State, who previously demolished its last two opponents with its seemingly unstoppable spread offensive attack. When asked about the upcoming game against his former Aztecs, Hoke indicated it wouldn't be easy. "I tell ya, we got our hands full," he said.

San Diego State is stout in its offensive and defensive lines, and it has great weapons in quarterback Ryan Lindley (an effective passer) and tailback Ronnie Hillman, who was named a Freshman All-American last year. With these players Hoke was able to lead the Aztecs to the Poinsettia Bowl in 2010 and win it. When Hoke departed for Michigan, Aztec defensive coordinator Rocky Long took over and has kept the continuity and consistency of Hoke's "toughness-oriented" program. Watching Long's press conferences, you'd think he took over a program that was struggling. He frequently makes sobering statements about the Aztecs' upcoming games, yet the Aztecs continue to win. Long had said that Washington State's offense genuinely "scared" him, because the only offenses his team had faced for the past three games were the triple option, and WSU's spread is the furthest thing from that. He wasn't sure how the team would handle it, but then San Diego State came out and beat WSU 42-24 at home. Long's strategy seems to underplay the upcoming opponent as much as he can before the Aztecs go out and beat them anyway. He has said that Michigan has a "huge advantage" over them because of Brady Hoke's knowledge of the San Diego State team.

That could be true, but if there is in fact a strategy to Long's words, we could be in for an upset. I was already a little nervous about San Diego State coming to Ann Arbor, urging Michigan fans not to expect an easy win in any capacity. Hoke established a program at San Diego State that could easily make it to a bowl game this year, and if Rocky Long continues what Hoke started, they could even contend for the Mountain West Conference title. They'll need to knock off TCU and Boise State to do that, but Hoke came very close to beating them last year, and if the game against Baylor is any indication, TCU may have a tendency to underestimate opponents.

San Diego State's game against Michigan does nothing for their conference play. It will simply be a feel-good win for either team. A win for the Aztecs will make them feel great that Hoke built their program essentially good enough to defeat Rich Rodriguez's, and it may even make them feel better about Hoke leaving. Will it be poetic justice for Hoke's departure? Some Aztec fans will say yes, but Hoke's separation from San Diego was no where near as messy as Rodriguez's was from West Virginia. In fact, most Aztec fans weren't surprised when Hoke left: he had said, after all, that Michigan was his dream job.

The circumstances indicate that a loss to San Diego State should not be humiliating considering how much Hoke has developed the Aztecs. Michigan fans may feel disappointed if they lose to Hoke's old team, but it shouldn't be all that painful. It won't affect Michigan's standing in the Big Ten, nor will it indicate that Hoke has his team moving in the wrong direction. If anything, a loss to San Diego State could bring a begrudging amount of comfort to the Michigan faithful: Hoke built a team that could beat Michigan. If he did that, imagine what he could do for the Wolverines. Contrastingly, a loss for San Diego State should not be damning to their program. They will have to contend against and somehow contain Michigan's Denard Robinson, and Michigan's defense is improving slowly but surely. Neither team will be a push-over. It will be interesting to see how the game plays out.

The Aztecs' offensive line and Ronnie Hillman will prove a good test for Michigan's run defense, which needs to substantially improve if it wishes to withstand the Big Ten. Pass defense isn't great either, but with Michigan's coaches focusing intensely on fundamentals, the Wolverines could do better against the Big Ten this year than they did in 2010. Michigan's first Big Ten match-up shouldn't be too hefty of a challenge as they start with Minnesota at home. The Golden Gophers have struggled but are not incapable, and they admittedly aren't exactly excited about Big Ten play. Michigan goes to Northwestern as their first road test. If they improve week to week, the Wolverines will be ready for Michigan State and, eventually, Ohio State.

Both rivals suffered losses in Week 3, prompting an array of question marks in certain areas. The Spartans' offensive line seems to be experiencing what Michigan's did last year and the year before, and their loss to Notre Dame sent the MSU fanbase into a predictable meltdown. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes' defense is still strong as ever, but they are understandably worried about their situation at quarterback. MSU's and OSU's eventual match-ups with Michigan are as close to as uncertain as possible at this point.

For the Big Ten, the 2011 season is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing. Nebraska, despite starting 3-0, might not be as dominant as we all thought, and Illinois could surprise everyone and become a contender. Michigan, of course, could be one as well. There is no such thing as a sure thing this year.

As much fun as looking at opponents' problems is, the Wolverines need to focus on what they need to do, and that means improvement. Brady Hoke seems to be developing a sense of depth on both sides of the ball, as there doesn't appear to be any egregious weaknesses at any position. Even Denard Robinson, who is considered both dangerously threatening and dangerously problematic, could improve by the time he leads the team into the Big Ten conference.

In 1969, Bo Schembechler was in his first year at Michigan and hit some bumps in the road as his Wolverines lost to No. 9 ranked Missouri and then to Michigan State. Yet he developed the team as the season went on, and when they faced No. 1 ranked Ohio State, they pulled out a spectacular upset that the Maize and Blue still cherish today. Admittedly, Brady Hoke may not be the next Bo Schembechler, but a good indicator of what Hoke can do will be seeing how his team improves. Rodriguez's teams actually seemed to get worse as the season went on—to frustrating and disappointing results. Michigan would start strong in games but then teetered off. Now, they appear to stumble in the beginning before staging a minor comeback and finishing strong. The Wolverines weren't the second-half team under Rodriguez that they appear to be today. This could mean that Hoke is definitively changing Michigan into a better program.

If he is, and if the Wolverines get better with each passing week, it'll make for an interesting season. Moreover, it could make 2011 feel like 1969.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Good Protestants Always Win in the End

I'm actually Catholic, but I always root for Michigan over Notre Dame and despise the Fighting Irish as much as the next fan. Well, not so much despise as have a begrudging respect for them.

There's no question that Notre Dame has some of the greatest tradition in college football, but sometimes the fans' attitude that "every Catholic in the country roots for Notre Dame" is a little insulting. Their "Touchdown Jesus" is also slightly blasphemous. Personally, I think that God doesn't give a fig about college football. It's a man-made sport that, yes, we love, but the play on the field has nothing to do with religion, nor should it. So the notion that God is on Notre Dame's side simply because they're a Catholic university doesn't make a whole lot of sense. (I mean, what happens when Notre Dame plays Boston College, which is also Catholic?) If the game on September 10 was any indication of whose "side" God was on, it wasn't Notre Dame. That shouldn't be discouraging to Irish fans or anyone of religious implication. By all means, you can care about college football, but God doesn't.

Despite my immense respect, their sort of sacrilegious attitude is one of my biggest personal problems with Notre Dame—and particularly, their fans. As a Catholic, I'm doubly offended. (The other problem that I have is the ever growing insinuation that Notre Dame's players are generally getting more and more thuggish.) However, I should say that the Fighting Irish conducted themselves very well in Michigan Stadium's first night game. In one of the most anticipated games that turned out to be one of the most exciting, the game came down to the final two seconds of play. It was a thriller that is almost certain to become an instant classic.

The Irish dominated the first half of the game. They were up two touchdowns in the first quarter, as the Notre Dame offense was rolling under sophomore Tommy Rees, and the Irish defense stopped the Wolverines and quarterback Denard Robinson cold. By halftime, the score was 17-7 in favor of Notre Dame. Michigan's only touchdown in the first half came from wide receiver Junior Hemingway, who stretched out and knocked over the pylon in a dive to the endzone. The Wolverines only had 90 yards of offense in the first half. Notre Dame had 268.

Michigan really didn't start its comeback until the first play of the fourth quarter. The Wolverines had pushed the ball down the field to the Notre Dame goal line, but Hoke and Denard Robinson opted to wait for the clock to stop for the quarter break before punching it in. On the run, the ball was knocked loose from Michigan running back Stephen Hopkins in the pile-up. Then, Denard Robinson picked it up and ran one yard into the endzone.

Luck of the Irish? Try the Luck of the Wolverines.

The rest of the fourth quarter was a battle. Michigan produced more than 200 yards of offense in the fourth quarter alone. Down 24-21, they finally took the lead when Vincent Smith scored on a beautiful screen pass and by dodging some Irish tackles to make the score 28-24. With just over a minute left, Notre Dame flew down the field, and Tommy Rees completed a pass to Irish wideout Theo Riddick who scored a touchdown.

Then came the magic. In one of the most improbable scenarios ever to happen in college football, the Wolverines needed to score with only thirty seconds on the clock. The Irish kicked the ball into the endzone on the kickoff, preventing any type of return. Michigan had to go 80 yards in half a minute. Denard's first pass was incomplete, but his second was caught by a wide-open Jeremy Gallon who cut back across the field and stepped out of bounds at the Notre Dame 15-yard line. With eight seconds left, the score was 31-28. All Michigan needed to do was kick a field goal to tie the game and go into overtime.

Instead, Brady Hoke took a shot. He still had two timeouts, and eight seconds was enough time to try for the endzone at least once. The ball was snapped, and Denard rolled out and threw a pass to Roy Roundtree in the endzone. Pass interference by Notre Dame, but Roundtree caught it anyway, and Hoke declined the penalty. That meant Michigan just scored a touchdown to put them up 35-31 with two seconds (00:02) left in the game. The stadium exploded as the fans went crazy.

Michigan purposefully squibbed the kickoff and Notre Dame scrambled to the ball, but the Wolverines knocked it out of their hands and it bounced back to the endzone. Michigan picked it up and ran for the goal line, but Notre Dame hit from behind and knocked the ball out of their hands. It bounced out of the endzone. There was no safety call or anything. The clock had run out, and Michigan had won. The Big House was rocking.

Everywhere Notre Dame fans were stunned as Michigan had defeated them for the third consecutive time, and this victory, just like all the others, had come within the last minute of play by a game-winning touchdown. When people say "another typical match-up between Michigan and Notre Dame," this is what they mean. Down to the wire, pulse-pounding, adrenaline rushing football, won at the very end. It had happened in 2009 with Tate Forcier. It happened in 2010 when Denard ran it in. Now it happened with a spectacular pass to Roy Roundtree. This was easily one of the most exciting games of the past century.

If you happened to miss the game, or if you just want to re-live it, you can watch the Michigan highlights of the game here. The Big Ten Network has a recap and highlights of both teams here. You can also check out all the game stats for both teams on Michigan's athletic department website.

Understandably, Notre Dame fans were devastated. Some of them have even said that they won't follow Notre Dame anymore because of how frustrating it is to watch them. After all, Rees and Riddick had won the game with their last touchdown, but Michigan simply stepped up and scored a game-winner anyway. "It's never over until there are two zeroes on the clock," Denard Robinson said.

Denard had put up more than 500 total yards in 2010, and this year he reached 446 against Notre Dame. Over three hundred yards passing, one hundred rushing, and almost all of it came in the fourth quarter. On an ESPN Sportscenter recap, Denard sat with Chris Fowler to discuss the Notre Dame-Michigan game. When Denard heard that he had finished with 446 yards that night, he was like, "WHAT??!! Oh, man..."

There was more than enough hype going into this game. It was Michigan Stadium's first ever at night, Desmond Howard was being honored into the college football hall of fame, and ESPN College Gameday came to the campus. On top of all that, Lee Corso picked Michigan to win. When I saw that, I became increasingly worried. As you may or may not know, I had predicted that a win for Michigan against Notre Dame would be possible but not easy, giving them only a 21% chance of victory. I thought that because Michigan had won for the past two years, because the Irish were now coming in 0-1 (which I didn't know at the time of the predictions), because the pressure was far more on second-year coach Brian Kelly than on first-year coach Brady Hoke, and because all the hype was going into this game, Desmond Howard being there, the throwback jerseys on both sides, I thought the Wolverines couldn't handle it. But I was wrong. Michigan staged one of the best comeback fourth-quarter victories in its 132-year history. In the end, the Wolverines gave Desmond a great game to remember, and an even better victory for the fans. Brady Hoke is now 2-0, and Brian Kelly is 0-2.

This was obviously a great win for Brady Hoke, who in his first year is trying to re-establish Michigan football to what it once was. Beating Notre Dame in the Big House's first night game was a great start. It was also a very good test for our defense, which from this game we can see has a long way to go. My hope is that they'll be ready for Michigan State and Ohio State. Interestingly enough, Bo Schembechler always put his best team on the field against Ohio State, and every year you could always count on Michigan to do that. Rich Rodriguez's best Michigan teams were always against Notre Dame, and Michigan consistently played its best game of the season against the Irish, only to be steamrolled by the Spartans and the Buckeyes weeks later.

You could make the argument that we just saw Michigan's best game of the year, or you could argue that we have yet to see Michigan's best team. There were mistakes everywhere against Notre Dame, play wasn't perfect, but the team seemed to have improved from the previous week against Western Michigan, when the Wolverines won 34-10. The implication is that Michigan will improve week-to-week, and by the time they face Ohio State, they'll be ready. It certainly seems like that's possible under Brady Hoke's coaching staff. Let's hope that it is.

Of course, the outlook is not as good for Brian Kelly. The Notre Dame coach has lost for the second straight time to the Wolverines in a game that the Irish were definitely favored to win. You can bet that Irish alumni everywhere are pretty upset with him right now. A 0-2 start is not what they had in mind for this season. If Kelly is not already in the hot seat, he will be very soon. He needs wins, and he needs them now. His Irish will have to defeat Navy, Boston College, and even USC if he expects to keep his job after the season. (Notre Dame also plays rival Stanford at the end of the season. That game is a bit of long shot for the Irish, in terms of coming up with a win, but anything's possible.)

The majority of Irish fans are angry at Kelly because they still judge success by National Championships, which he has yet to win. If the South Florida loss damaged Notre Dame's chances at a BCS title, Michigan destroyed it. A 0-2 record has solidified that the Irish will not be No. 1 this year. They're even farther from going to the BCS.

Last week I had said that Notre Dame would be desperate when they came to Ann Arbor to play Michigan. They were, but I thought that desperation would mean the Irish would win. They didn't. Even desperate, the Irish lost anyway. Now they go on to play Michigan State at home in South Bend. The pressure is even higher. Kelly must win that game. If Notre Dame loses, the possibility of even being bowl-eligible will slip away quickly, and the Irish faithful will be looking for a new coach.

Michigan's next game, on the other hand, is considerably easier. The Wolverines stay at home to play Eastern Michigan and Ron English, who I have said has the toughest job in college football. Despite having little to work with, English had done a fanatistic job in bringing a foundation to the EMU Eagles and trying to change a culture of losing. Now in his third year, the Eagles are now 2-0 (something they have not been since 1989) coming into the Michigan game. The game doesn't expect to be a nail-biter, but I certainly hope Eastern Michigan performs well enough to make a game out of it. That's really all Ron English can ask of his players. Brady Hoke has a lot of respect for English (a Michigan Man), and so do I.

In terms of the rest of Michigan's season, I'm a little surprised at what has transpired. Notre Dame was one of the few losses I expected us to have in our quest to go a respectable 8-4. It would be a good 8-4, because hopefully wins would have come against Michigan State and Ohio State. Now that Michigan has beaten Notre Dame, we have a legitimate shot of starting out 5-0 before we have our first road game against Northwestern. I'm still a little worried about San Diego State, only because Brady Hoke just came from there, but that's a topic for another day.

I said before that Brady Hoke's true test is on the field, and he's certainly succeeding at it. The rivals (MSU, OSU) must remain targets and we must put our best teams on the field against them, but I think it's pretty fair to say that this season is shaping up to be a good one.

When Chris Fowler asked Denard about the game's final 72 seconds, Denard looked around at everyone in the Big House and smiled. "I don't know what happened," he said. "You've just seen a Michigan team playing together and playing as a team...Even though we didn't play the best football, we got a win in, and hat's off to Notre Dame because they played a great game."

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Notre Dame Will Come to Ann Arbor Desperate for a Win

This Saturday, the Michigan Wolverines will play the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Michigan Stadium's first ever night game. ESPN College Gameday will also be featuring the event. It promises to be one of the most exciting games early in the season.

However, there's a little turmoil in South Bend, as the Irish are reeling from a 23-20 shocking defeat at the hands of the USF Bulls. Notre Dame fans stood or sat stunned as their team played horribly, giving away as many as five turnovers. (The Bulls' turnover margin was zero.) The Irish eventually outgained South Florida in total yardage, but the second half rally was not enough to make up for their abysmal performance in the first half. Even in the third and fourth quarters, there were costly mistakes, penalties, and interceptions. They staged a minor comeback and came to within a field goal in the final minute of the game, but they failed to recover the ball in an onside kick. With no timeouts left for the Irish, USF simply ran out the clock.

Throughout the game, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was furious. Some NBC cameras caught glimpses of Kelly being visibly irate with his players, as his face turned purple and he screamed curse words at them. 

It was one mistake after another for the Irish, who even when they seemed to catch a break just gave the ball back to the Bulls. Notre Dame started out well on their first drive, but the momentum completely shifted when USF safety Jerrell Young stripped the ball from Notre Dame's Jonas Gray (the backup running back for Cierre Wood), and the ball was picked up by Kayvon Webster for the Bulls. With no one in front of him, Webster returned the fumble 96 yards for a defensive touchdown. 

"You talk about a deflator," NBC commentator Dan Hicks said during the return.

The Irish never recovered. In their second trip the redzone, quarterback Dayne Crist's pass to Theo Riddick in the endzone was picked off by DeDe Lattimore. Notre Dame's defense held strong, allowing USF to only make field goals on their offensive drives. When both teams left the field for half-time, Notre dame trailed 16-0, having produced no points, and there were a lot of boos from South Bend's home crowd.

Brian Kelly's suffering would be drawn out more as the severe weather that later made its way to Ann Arbor had delayed the game for two hours in South Bend. Kelly pulled Crist as quarterback and put in sophomore Tommy Rees, who in 2010 led the Irish to a four-game winning streak at the end of the season. Rees was more productive than Crist, but the Irish experienced constant setbacks because of penalties. Back-to-back facemask penalties from safety Harrison Smith gave the Bulls tons of free yards and new first downs. The Irish were also called numerous times for holding and pass interference.

But it was turnovers that doomed Notre Dame. Rees threw a pass at receiver T.J. Jones's shoulder blade that bounced off and resulted in an interception. Kelly went berserk on Jones for not looking for the ball, cursing madly and following him around on the sidelines berating him. (Some commentators felt that it was more Rees's fault for throwing the ball before Jones was ready to catch it.) Notre Dame came into the contest as 21-point favorites and ranked No. 16 in the country. USF, who became a division one program in 2001, walked away with a 23-20 victory. Their coach was Skip Holtz, who had played at Notre Dame and is the son of Lou Holtz, the last coach to win the Irish a National Championship. That happened in 1988.

Before the 2011, Notre Dame fans had high hopes and higher expectations. It was Brian Kelly's second year, and the Irish were placed as a Top Ten team in numerous preseason polls. They were even considered a dark horse contender for the National Championship. Unfortunately, the loss to USF destroyed any hopes Irish fans had of going undefeated and contending for the BCS National Title. It's kind of weird to call yourself No. 1 when you lose your season opener. (True to form, though, Notre Dame's fans do it anyway.)

The schedule for the Irish looked somewhat tough before the season, but now it looks even tougher. With the future suddenly uncertain and their hopes vanquished, they'll have difficult contests against Michigan, Michigan State, Pittsburgh, USC, Navy, BC, and they finish the season against Stanford. If Notre Dame loses to Michigan this Saturday, Brian Kelly will be in the hot seat. It will be the third straight time that Notre Dame has lost to Michigan, a team they have said they are determined to beat this year.

Admittedly, when I was making predictions for the 2011 season, I was a little worried about Notre Dame. The pressure is more on them to win than it is for us. A loss for Brady Hoke will not doom him, especially since it's his first year. But a loss could doom Kelly, because he has already lost the opener, putting the whole season in jeopardy. Now, I'm not sure what to think. I had expected both teams to come into the contest 1-0, but Notre Dame would be a bit hungrier because of the losses to Michigan in 2009 and 2010. (Both years had worse seasons for the Wolverines.) This time, because of how their season started, the Irish will be desperate. They need to win, not just to gain some foothold in the rivalry, but because the rest of their season depends on it. Brian Kelly's career certainly does.

There are generally two modes of thought coming out of Notre Dame's performance in the USF game. The first is that the Irish are a really good team who just had a really bad day. They came in maybe a little overconfident because they were at home and it was the first game and they were ranked so high. Then they just couldn't recover from the fumble USF returned for a touchdown. The game got away from them, and they fell deeper into a hole. By the time they got out, it was too late. This mode of thought is probably what most Irish fans are thinking because it means that the team will quickly bounce back, beat Michigan, and go on to an 11-1 season. Then again, those fans tend to rarely exercise objectivity anyway. They expect Notre Dame to win the National Championship every year.

The second mode of thought is that the Irish lost because they are horribly undisciplined. This certainly explains why the team played so badly, why they racked up so many penalties, and why they gave away so many turnovers. USF might not have been the more talented team, but they were definitely more disciplined. They played smart football and gave away no turnovers. Thus, they deserved to win the game. However, this is bad news for Notre Dame fans. If the problem is that the team suffers from an absolute lack of discipline, the Irish are going to experience more of the same as what they saw against USF, and the result will largely be the same as last year. This is even worse news for Brian Kelly, who I thought was a smarter coach and taught his team discipline. If he hasn't, then the Irish are going to barely make it through the season, and Kelly will be out.

The game against Michigan will be a really good indicator for a lot of things. It will indicate how Michigan can handle an aggressive and talented defense, it will indicate how Michigan's pass defense fares against two good Irish quarterbacks, and it will indicate if what Brian Kelly experienced against USF was a fluke. Make no mistake: the Irish will be coming for blood. However, if they're over-aggressive and cost themselves penalties and give Michigan free first downs, then the Wolverines have nothing to worry about and should handle this one calmly. That will only happen if the Irish lack discipline.

Notre Dame is one of the few college football programs that I respect, one of the few (and possibly only) programs that has the tradition and the pageantry and the fight song to truly rival Michigan. However, I lost a lot of respect for them last Saturday. They played like thugs. It's become a well-established joke that if Penn State is "Linebacker U," USC is "Tailback U," and Michigan is "Quarterback U," then Notre Dame is "Thug U." Because of my respect for Notre Dame, I didn't give much attention to those jokes. 

Then, in 2010, when Kyle Rudolph caught that long pass behind Cam Gordon and ran into the endzone, I kind of thought Rudolph's open-mouthed expression was a bit thuggish, and when the whole "Thug U" thing came up, I thought it had to be a coincidence. However, this year, when I saw Notre Dame play USF and the way they acted on the field, I saw a bunch of thugs. Instead of channeling aggression into big hits and sure tackles, they were over-aggressive and earned costly penalties. What's the point of being that aggressive if you're just going to give the other team a free first down? That's why discipline is so important.

Brian Kelly might need a lesson in discipline too. His swearing was captured on national television for fans of all ages to see, and the National Catholic Register even wonders if such an outburst on the sideline warrants his termination. If Notre Dame cares at all about their reputation, they will make sure Kelly realizes that his behavior was unacceptable. But they might not, as they have more pressing issues since the loss to USF just totaled their chances of being relevant in the National Title discussion. Kelly and the Irish came into the USF contest as confident heroes. Now they are suddenly desperate for wins.

One of the things that bothers me about Notre Dame's fans is that they think everyone is out to get them. If anything, it's the opposite: everyone has a soft spot for Notre Dame. NBC constantly gets commentators that always speak favorably about the Irish (even if they're losing badly), and Tom Hammond's bias for Notre Dame is an open secret. Radio personality Skip Bayless ruthlessly and pointlessly defended Notre Dame when Stephen Smith made a reasonable argument basically asking why do we all still care about Notre Dame when they aren't even a true contender and haven't been one for decades.

In terms of their relevancy, Brian Kelly was supposed to change all that. He was the guy that was finally supposed to make Notre Dame truly relevant again. A small part of me even thought that Kelly would lead the Irish to the National Championship within five years. But maybe he's not the coach everyone thinks he is. Maybe going to Notre Dame was too big of a step too quickly for him. Maybe he wasn't ready for it.

He's a much different coach from Brady Hoke. Kelly is a yeller, like Rodriguez was. Hoke prefers to explain to his players rather than turn red and scream at them. Even Kirk Herbstreit said that the coach should build players up rather than tear them down. Fortunately, Kelly has promised to better control his emotions. It will be difficult, especially considering what is at stake when he plays Michigan. Emotions are certain to run high.

The Wolverines should be ready for Notre Dame. The Irish want this one bad. The question is, will they be disciplined enough not to shoot themselves in the foot?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Michigan-WMU Game Called in Third Quarter because of Lightning, Thunderstorms

Brady Hoke cinched his first victory as Michigan's head coach, but it came in one of the most "unusual circumstances" of college football.

With Michigan up 34-10 in the third quarter, the game was delayed for the second time after thunderstorms rolled in and lightning was spotted. It had been delayed once earlier in the third quarter. After the second delay, the storms showed no signs of letting up, and the game was called as a Michigan victory. It was the first time in recorded Michigan football history that a game was called because of the weather.

When I first heard that the game had ended prematurely, I was livid. Yes, it meant that Michigan walked away with a 34-10 victory (the whole "a win is a win" thing), but both teams deserved to play four quarters of football. The Broncos were never given the chance to stage a possible comeback—with fifteen minutes in the fourth quarter, they might even have done it—and Michigan was never given the chance to put this one away.

The reason that perhaps I was (or am) the most upset is because I am not a fair weather fan. Football is played in rain, snow, or shine. As fans we come out and support the team no matter how good or how bad the weather is, and we already know that in the state of Michigan the weather can get pretty unpredictable. While I understand why they delayed the game and ultimately ended it prematurely, I'm not happy about it. I don't care if Michigan was winning; you play four quarters of football.

What if the situation was reversed? What if Michigan was down 10-34? What if this was a rivalry game, against Ohio State or Michigan State? What if it were the National Championship? What if we were losing by one point and lightning struck within five miles? Fans of Western Michigan feel cheated, and they should. Michigan fans should feel cheated too. It wasn't fair to either team to let the weather dictate who won and who lost the game. I can tell with near certainty that if the situation was reversed, everyone on Michigan's athletic staff would have pushed for the game to play out no matter what the weather was.

The weather was obviously the primary topic of discussion in Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon's press conference. He explained why it was acceptable to call the game early. MGoBlog has a full transcript:
We got through the first delay, and we actually thought we had another hour and a half window before the next big front was moving through, but this time of year, with the humidity and heat that we had, we just had buildups come out of nowhere. In a conference situation, as I understand it, the Big Ten has some very specific rules and protocols to follow. In a non-conference game, it's a little more open-ended in terms of how this is managed. But in the conference rules, the officials and the head coaches and the home athletic director meet with the director of operations—and in our case that would be Rob Rademacher—and we would make a call.

The choices that we had were to wait it out—and we looked at that—the choices that we had were to suspend the game and leave the score where it was. There were some other options, but none of those were acceptable. We decided after a bit of discussion, and I want to compliment coach Cubit and Kathy Beauregard at Western. They were really terrific about this. We really thought about the safety of the fans, and we thought about the safety of the players, because to make them sit what could have been an hour and 45 minutes based on some of the projections we had with the weather, and then try to go out and get warmed up again and play more football would have not been in the interest of either team.

If this was a close game that was into the fourth quarter and the game was in doubt, I think we would have waited it out because—well, we would have either waited it out because that was what the coaches wanted to do, or we would have decided that this would have gone in the books as a non-game, but the agreement that was reached between Western [WMU] and Michigan was that the game was in hand, and that the game would stand as the final score would be indicated, so that's kind of where we are.
I understand Brandon's point, but I don't necessarily or completely agree with it. First, unpredictable weather is a part of college football, and in Michigan, bad weather is practically predictable. Michigan football has existed for 132 years and never once in recorded history has a game been determined prematurely because the weather was unbearable. Even the "Snow Bowl" game against Ohio State played four quarters. In football, whether you're a player or a fan, you tough it out. It's just another aspect of adversity that you have to overcome.

I almost feel like I have to bring up the slippery slope argument here. I mean, seriously, where does it end? If you're going to cancel or postpone a game because of a little rain or thunder, then the only acceptable way to play football is in an indoor stadium. Okay, yes, Brandon was probably thinking lawsuit-avoidance most of the time that the lightning flashed, but part of me thinks that the only vulnerable part of the stadium is at the very top—on the roofs of the expanded, executive suites, where no one is standing at that point anyway. I can hardly see how someone way down in the bowl of Michigan Stadium is at risk. Most (if not all) of the fans in the stadium that day had no problem with the rain or the lightning, and they wanted the game to go on. Besides, if someone can sue because they got struck by lightning, why not sue if you get pneumonia from a snowy game, or slip when it's rainy? The argument that I presume would've held up in court is that Michigan's athletic department cannot control the weather and thus is not responsible for it. Now, because the game was called because of the weather, it brings that argument into serious doubt.

Anyway, I suppose I should talk a little bit about the game itself. For as long as they were able to play, Michigan struggled in the beginning of the game (especially the first quarter and a little bit of the second) before it finally clicked and started producing. The biggest difference from 2010 was that Michigan produced more as a team than individually. The stats were delegated to various players instead of just one. Had Denard Robinson been able to lead the team through the fourth quarter, it's likely he would have at least produced a passing or rushing touchdown. Instead, the offensive touchdowns came from running backs Fitzgerald Toussaint and Michael Shaw. The defense also surprised everyone in the stadium with their own touchdowns. Redshirt senior Brandon Herron picked off a deflected pass and took it 94 yards for a touchdown, the longest pick-return in stadium history. Herron also recovered a fumble for a touchdown. He was named Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week.

As much as Herron's efforts are appreciated by the Michigan faithful, he was really just in the right place at the right time, and he capitalized on Western Michigan's mistakes. The Broncos proved to be an adequate test against Michigan's pass defense, the weakest aspect of Michigan's defense in 2010 under Rich Rodriguez. The Broncos produced very little by running the ball. In the first quarter, Michigan gave up short yards (usually passing) but did not surrender any big plays. In the second half especially, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison made some adjustments that resulted in the Wolverines getting far more pressure on WMU's quarterback, Alex Carder. Redshirt junior Jordan Kovacs (a former walk-on) recorded two sacks, one of which resulted in a fumble that was picked up by Brandon Herron and returned for a touchdown. Kovacs, a definite impact player, notably led Michigan's defense in tackles last year.

Considering how much Michigan's defense struggled last season, it was good to see them get physical. The biggest difference I noticed was tackling. Michigan only had one open-field missed tackle, by sophomore Carvin Johnson. The defense otherwise swarmed to the ball and held WMU's offense when it needed to. As much as I would say that the defense had a great game even though it stumbled out of the gate, Brady Hoke still feels that the defense isn't there yet. "We're not playing the way we need to play Michigan defense," he told sideline reporter Jeanine Edwards at the end of the first half. "Not even close."

One of the best aspects of Michigan's game-playing was the turnover margin. Michigan's defense forced three turnovers, and Michigan's offense had none. Denard threw no interceptions, and no Michigan player fumbled the ball. We'll have to see how Michigan fares when it hits tougher opponents, especially those in the Big Ten, but for now this has been probably one of the biggest areas of visible improvement for the Wolverines.

Offensively, Michigan was impressive but not spectacular. Junior quarterback Denard Robinson looked good in the pro-style offense, taking snaps under center and multiple times from the shotgun. He passed far more than he ran. Denard did run effectively several times for a first down, but he did not score any touchdowns rushing or passing. Offensive coordinator Al Borges spread the ball around, having Denard pass to different receivers. Sophomore Jeremy Gallon and senior captain tight end Kevin Koger were the two most frequent targets. Roy Roundtree and Junior Hemingway also had successful receptions.

Notably, and perhaps negatively, Michigan's first drive of the game took 16 plays and over eight minutes. Perhaps it can be chalked up to Michigan exercising ball control and, more importantly, getting into a rhythm, because after that the offense was just rolling under Fitzgerald Toussaint and Michael Shaw. The game's last touchdown came when the offensive line opened a hole and Shaw ran 44 yards to the endzone. Western Michigan then buckled under the pressure of Michigan's defense, which continued to get to the quarterback. Storms rolled in, and the game was delayed and eventually called.

Special teams, not surprisingly, were discernibly the worst part of the game under Michigan. Placekicker Brendon Gibbons had a blocked extra point, and Michigan struggled to prevent big returns on kickoff and punts. On the other side, wide receiver Jeremy Gallon returned the ball for the Wolverines but rarely got the offense into good starting field position. Gallon was far more effective receiving passes from Denard Robinson.

In what was perhaps the worst news, cornerback Troy Woolfolk (Michigan's best at that position) sprained his ankle and had to be escorted off the field. It was not the same ankle that he injured last year, which kept him out of the 2010 season. Brady Hoke assured reporters that Woolfolk's injury was not serious and, had Michigan needed him, he would have returned to the game. Hoke felt that cornerbacks Courtney Avery and J.T. Floyd managed well without Woolfolk. In the first quarter, Woolfolk had made a big open-field tackle that reminded Michigan fans of how competent a defensive player he is. Hopefully, he should be able to return for the remainder of Michigan's games.

Aside from the way the game ended, I was very satisfied with how Michigan played. The biggest aspect I was looking for was how both sides of the ball were adapting to the new coaching staffs. Tackling has vastly improved from last year, which if you saw 2010 you know that the Wolverines couldn't tackle to save their lives. Denard is coming along very well as a passer—and while some of my peers may prefer to see him run for big yards and even touchdowns, I'd rather have a healthy Denard who can throw the football. The reason: Denard will always have that threat of a big run. It will always be an ace in his back pocket, but it shouldn't be the staple of our offense. If it is, Denard is far more likely to get injured. I was very pleased to see him throw the ball (successfully) rather than run. He obviously still ran on occasion and was successful there too.

You can watch the Michigan highlights of the game against WMU here.

In a somewhat-related piece of news, Michigan made a small change to their uniform that was present and visible during the game. There is now a small Block M on the back, above the player's name. It's small enough to where it will possibly go unnoticed. Personally, I don't think Michigan's uniform needed to be changed or altered in any way. However, the Block M on the uniform is small enough and subtle enough to where it doesn't detract from the uniform's appearance. We'll have to see how other people eventually react when they see it.

The Wolverines go on to face the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Michigan Stadium's first night game on September 10. The Brady Hoke era begins with a win, albeit a premature one, but at least we've gotten off to a good start.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Over-Hype Could Hurt Michigan's Season

In a recent press conference on August 28, Michigan football head coach Brady Hoke was asked if he felt his team was ready for September 3. "No," he said frankly. "We're not ready."

Across the Michigan fanbase, this was hardly encouraging, but Hoke has become known for telling it like it is. He has high expectations of the Wolverines, wanting them to win the Big Ten championship every year and beat Ohio State, regardless of what went on in 2010. 

To some, this type of honesty is refreshing. It shows that Hoke knows what he wants out of his Michigan team, and he will strive to get it there. Moreover, success for Michigan becomes a question of "when," rather than a question of "if." Hoke will be successful at Michigan: it's only a matter of time.

Of course, when you have a coach who is that up front in what he thinks, and who can constantly remind fans of what's important, it's easy to get caught in Hoke's wake. Fans on Michigan football's Facebook page are predicting great things for Hoke's first year. Honestly, this is to be expected. We're only two days away from the start of the 2011 season. Optimism, excitement, and hype are par for the course.

Sports writers weigh in on how they think Michigan will do, so do blogs. Most think that an 8-4 mark is reasonable, and we at the Michigan Fanatic certainly agree. However, Michigan football's Facebook page has a tendency to post anything related to Michigan football, and they posted a recent "Best Case, Worst Case" promo by Adam Rittenberg, an ESPN Big Ten blogger. It's a quickly-spoken video rant with which I don't entirely agree. I'll explain why in a bit. 

For now, here's a written transcript of what Rittenberg said:
Best case for Michigan, like many teams in the Legends Division, I could see them winning this division if things fall right for them, head to Indy for the inaugural Big Ten championship game with a record of 10-2. In the best case scenario, Denard Robinson doesn't miss a beat, as he transitions to a new offense. They still maximize his running ability but he really makes strides as a passer, spreading the ball around to all-Big Ten wide receivers Roy Roundtree and Junior Hemingway. Hemingway stays healthy, and you've seen what he can do when he stays on the field.

More importantly, Robinson stays healthy. He doesn't have those types of games last year where he's missing stretches here and there. He's able to stay in games, be effective with his legs, but more importantly, mature as a passer, gets good protection from the offensive line, and they have multiple running backs emerge to some of the rushing load off of Denard Robinson. I think, in this best case scenario, you see some young running backs, whether it's Stephen Hopkins or Thomas Rawls or Justice Hayes, who step up and show that they're going to be good players for Michigan—not just in 2011, but for years to come—really solidifying that rushing attack. Michigan capitalizes on that early season schedule, they upset Notre Dame in the first night home game at Michigan Stadium; they might start 7-0 or 8-0 or maybe even 9-0. They're going to lose a couple games down the stretch as the schedule gets a little tougher, but they end up winning a tie-breaker and going to the Big Ten championship game.

Also, defensively, you see a unit take major strides. The defensive line really adapts well to what Greg Mattison and Brady Hoke want them to do. Mike Martin, first team Big Ten defensive tackle, Big Ten defensive player of the year, he has an outstanding season. Ryan Van Bergen, Craig Roh: they rush the passer. Michigan gets better than expected play from the linebackers and the secondary makes a real jump. Troy Woolfolk shows what Michigan missed last year, staying healthy the whole year. He's an all Big Ten cornerback and other guys emerge in the secondary so that group isn't having nearly as many breakdowns. So, best case scenario for Michigan, I see them going 10-2 and going to the Big Ten championship game.

Worst case scenario, I really think there's a range here. I think Michigan could have a losing record in the worst case scenario. Here's why: you have a lot of adjustments going on and some potential problematic games, even early in the season. In the worst case scenario, Michigan loses to Notre Dame, and they also lose another non-conference game, whether it's Western Michigan, whether it's San Diego State, which is probably the more likely loss in this worst case scenario as Brady Hoke's old team comes to the Big House and embarrasses the first-year coach, creating a lot of negative energy towards a guy who has created quite the positive buzz so far in Ann Arbor. You also see some struggles with Michigan when they go on the road for the first time. They lose to Northwestern in that night game. They lose to Iowa. They struggle down the stretch with Nebraska. They lose again to Michigan State. They lose again to Ohio State.

I think, in the best case scenario, I see Michigan winning at least one if not two of their top Big Ten rivalry games against Michigan State or Ohio State. In the worst case scenario, those losses, again, continue. Those streaks continue, and there's more negativity around the Michigan program. Denard Robinson can't stay healthy. Defense has those types of breakdowns we saw in the secondary that plagued them throughout the 2010 season. Defensive line: maybe it's injuries, maybe it's just ineffectiveness, but they don't create enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks. So it's much of the same on Michigan's defense and certainly a concern for first-year Brady Hoke in this worst case scenario as Michigan misses a bowl game.
So, basically, Hoke's first season is a failure if he doesn't work miracles. Rittenberg takes a black-or-white, all-or-nothing approach, one which could be setting Michigan fans up for disappointment simply because Michigan might not start out 5-0. The reality, as always, will almost certainly be somewhere in the middle. Hoke's defense will steadily improve, and could snap the losing streaks against the rivals, and even contend for the Big Ten titles, but might lose some non-conference games—hence the common 8-4 prediction.

Yes, it will certainly be the worst cast scenario if Michigan doesn't go to a bowl game this year, if it can't snap the losing streaks to Ohio State and Michigan State. However, people shouldn't panic if Michigan loses to Notre Dame, or to San Diego State. I certainly don't see how a San Diego State victory would be an embarrassment to Brady Hoke, who just left there. If anything, it will be a testament to how well he did. Will an Aztec upset be unexpected? Yes. Will it be humiliating? To anyone who has followed Hoke's career, no.

My larger problem with Rittenberg's piece is that his "worst case" seems to be things that are very, very likely to happen. The defense continues to struggle? It's the same players from last year! It's almost like Rittenberg expects Hoke and Mattison to work miracles in their first season. Okay, yes, maybe all the defensive players needed was to be taught and re-taught fundamentals, but what if it's a talent issue? What if they simply aren't as tough as they need to be in the Big Ten?

I would not consider it the worst case scenario if the defense is mediocre but better than last year. I would not consider it the worst case scenario if we don't beat Notre Dame. An actual "worst case scenario" would be if 2011 is basically a repeat of 2008: players do not and can not fit into a situation which the coach forces upon them, and we go 3-9. That, more than anything else, would be the worst case.

But it's not going to happen because Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges have made it clear that they are going to take a gradual approach to shifting the offense. Denard will still be utilized and will still be a dual-threat. Hoke understands that because it's what he needs to do to win right now.

It still might be difficult. The night game against Notre Dame is being hyped to celestial levels, and a Michigan win is not as easy as some people may claim. Brian Kelly is in his second year in South Bend and has a powerful offensive attack in quarterbacks and wide receivers. They could shred Michigan's questionable secondary. Meanwhile, San Diego State has Ronnie Hillman (a Freshman All-American) at tailback. Expect Michigan to have a tough time stopping the run.

If people are really calling for Hoke's head after a possible loss to Notre Dame or San Diego State, then they really don't know much about him or the players. Michigan fans gave Rich Rodriguez three years; they should Brady Hoke the same.

I'm not saying this to denounce optimism. The beginning of the season is the perfect time for optimism. But there is being optimistic and there is being unrealistic. 

A perfect example is an unusually-excited Minnesota fan who thinks that Gopher coach Jerry Kill will not only go 7-5, but they'll soundly beat Michigan and Miami of Ohio. Minnesota has not been a competitive rival of Michigan's since the 1960s, and the only opportunity they truly had to take the Little Brown Jug trophy back was in 2008 when Michigan went 3-9. They failed, and Michigan beat them anyway. So now, with a far worse team in Minnesota and a far better team in Ann Arbor, the Gophers will win? Don't get me wrong: I don't think Michigan should underestimate Minnesota, and in college football an upset is always possible. But my point is that this fan is clearly unrealistic. He also expects Minnesota to defeat Miami (OH), who defeated Kill's Northern Illinois Huskies in the MAC championship. Kill defeated Minnesota with the Huskies. So now Kill is going to take a team he defeated (Minnesota) and conquer a team his Huskies could not?

You want unrealistic? That's unrealistic.

For Michigan, 10-2 would certainly be optimistic, but saying Michigan must go undefeated or Hoke is a failure is unrealistic. Have you forgotten how badly we were under Rich Rodriguez? These are the same players. We can't expect miracles to happen in one season. It took Hoke two seasons to turn around San Diego State, and that alone should be considered remarkable. But it didn't happen overnight.

While we can't expect miracles, we can expect progress. Hoke is guy who understands exactly what Michigan football is and what it's supposed to be: strong rushing attacks, stronger defenses, solid kicking games, and tough players. That's where you should place your confidence.

How do we know where to look for the progress? The answer: priorities. Hoke's top priorities must be to snap the losing streaks against Michigan State and Ohio State rather than defeating Nebraska or Iowa or even San Diego State. Sure, you take it a game at a time, but you can't gloss over one by looking at the whole season. That's why rivalries are special. Even if Hoke goes 7-5, if two of those wins are against the Spartans and the Buckeyes, Hoke's inaugural season will have easily been a good one.

Overall, Michigan should have plenty of success this year. Considering the direction the Big Ten conference has gone with the addition of Nebraska, Michigan's schedule is by far the easiest one that Hoke could have asked for in his first season. All of the first five games are at home. The opener is against a MAC team. He finishes the season with Nebraska and Ohio State at home. With the exception of the obvious awkwardness of facing his old team (the SDSU Aztecs), could it be more favorable? It's certainly easier than Jerry Kill's, as Minnesota's opener (and Kill's first game) is against USC in the Coliseum.

Hoke shouldn't have nearly as much trouble winning his first game, but he has stated that he greatly respects Western Michigan's passing attack by quarterback Alex Carder. Hoke calls Carder "one of the best quarterbacks in the Midwest." The WMU Broncos went 6-6 last year and have a lot of inexperience on their offensive line. But for a MAC team, they are coming along nicely. It will be a good challenge to see what Hoke has done with Michigan, but it won't be an impossible one.

Perhaps a lot of people are over-hyping 2011 because there is the feeling that Brady Hoke has been coaching here for years. He came in right away and went to work. He didn't need to get settled in to Ann Arbor. He didn't need to learn about traditions. He's known them forever. So, even though he hasn't coached a game yet, some people are acting like he has been coaching since the days of Lloyd Carr.

That's good because it should make people feel somewhat relieved that a true Michigan Man is at the helm, but it's bad because Michigan's fans have a tendency to over-hype their expectations. Brady Hoke may not go undefeated in 2011, and he may not go 10-2, but he will bring Michigan that sense of toughness that it has been lacking. If it doesn't happen immediately this year, then it will happen soon enough: Brady Hoke will win.