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.

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