Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Horizon

First, this needs to be said: Suck it, Buckeyes.

Ohio State fans often loved to repeat the number of days since the Maize and Blue had last beaten the Scarlet and Gray. Before November 26, 2011, it had been 2,925 days, and the Buckeyes were always happy let you know. (The Columbus Dispatch, which follows Ohio State football, kept a ticker on their page that reminded everyone of the number of days, but yesterday they had to change it.) This game means everything in the world to both teams. Some will say that it actually means more to Ohio State, because they don't really have another rival that keeps them up at night, but it means plenty to Michigan. And after eight years, the number of days that Michigan had last beaten Ohio State goes to zero.

Not surprisingly, Ohio State fans, who often can dish trash-talk out but can't ever seem to take it, have a million excuses. They "congratulate" Michigan fans that it took the Wolverines eight years to beat the Buckeyes. Yet they forget—understandably, given the nature of this rivalry, that you only see what you want to see—that Michigan dominated the rivalry not so long ago when John Cooper was the Buckeyes' head coach, that no matter how good Ohio State would be Michigan would always be better, and when the rivalry first began back in the late 1890s, Michigan once beat Ohio State 86-0.

But see, tell a Buckeye about that, and you'll get a healthy helping of context. 1890s football was not like ours is today. Yet we could use the same argument of context for Ohio State's eight year reign of dominance. It had been four years of an Ohio State winning streak between Jim Tressel and Lloyd Carr—legitimately, and you'll be hard pressed to find a reasonable Michigan fan unwilling to give the Buckeyes props—but the dominance extended to seven (with one Buckeye win vacated, appropriately) because Michigan selected the wrong coach to renew the rivalry. Now, Michigan has obviously selected the right one, and the reign of dominance has ended.

You won't find too many instances of Schadenfreude from Ohio State's fan base after this game, however. The rational ones fully expected a loss, and most of them are content with entertaining the rumors that Urban Meyer will be the Ohio State next head coach instead. They'd prefer to think about that than what had happened in the Big House. A few weeks after he resigned, Jim Tressel told the Buckeye faithful that Michigan would lose. In fact, he practically guaranteed it. "Don't forget," he said encouragingly, but with a distinct tone of hatred that he no longer needed to hide. "November 26, we're going to kick their ass!" Well, as it turns out, Mr. Tressel... you were wrong. Payback sucks, doesn't it?

After the 40-34 win against Ohio State, Michigan fans everywhere uttered the same phrase: it's about time.

If anyone ever doubted Brady Hoke, they probably don't now. Within a year, he has changed so dramatically the play of the Michigan football team. Last year they were determined but uncompetitive. This year, they were still determined, but because they were competitive, they won a lot of games—the most important of which was Ohio State—putting Hoke's first season record at an astonishing 10-2 and the possibility (likeliness still to be determined) of going to a BCS bowl.

Hoke, of course, gives all the credit to the players, particularly the seniors. After the Wolverines clinched the win over Ohio State with the victory formation, Hoke went onto the field and was given a Gatorade bath that echoed San Diego State's program-changing victory over Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl. When a reporter asked Hoke what it felt like for him to win ten games, Hoke said, "Oh, that doesn't matter. I'm happy for those kids. That's what this game's all about." He also said, in a later press conference, when asked about Urban Meyer as the potential next coach of Ohio State, "You know, the good thing about coaches...we don't do the competing. It's the kids. It's the guys on the field."

Yet it is impossible, especially after what we have witnessed over the past three to four years, to discredit the effect of having the right coaching staff. The fact that Brady Hoke is Michigan's head coach is precisely the difference. Under Rich Rodriguez, the Wolverines got worse defensively each year, and by the time they faced Ohio State at season's end, they never stood a chance. There is no doubt that the players wanted a win, even then. So why didn't they win? It was not like they didn't care and suddenly in 2011 decided that they were going to work hard and do the right things on the field. That passion has always been there. It's what keeps the players going day to day. It's why they play the game.

The reason they are winning, however, is because Hoke's staff has done a fantastic job preparing them. You can have all the passion and willpower in the world, but if you aren't executing good fundamentals, you're not going to play effectively, and ultimately you're not going to win. Hoke came in and taught the players what they needed to learn, so that by the time they faced Ohio State, they'd be ready, and they'd be competitive. Thanks to Tressel (and Rodriguez, to some degree, as he must endure at least some blame given the radical change we've seen recently), the Buckeyes were used to winning, but this year it wasn't going to be so easy. (Don't feel too bad for Rodriguez, by the way. He's got another BCS coaching job.)

Hoke also emphasized the rivalry more palpably since day one. He was asked about it in his introductory press conference, a time when he won a lot of people over because it was an opportunity for him to show his passion. He ended every team meeting with "Beat Ohio." And, of course, much like Woody Hayes only referred to Michigan as "that school up north," Hoke will only refer to Ohio State as "Ohio." However, unlike Hayes, Hoke has an incredible respect for Ohio State and won't hesitate to admit it.

I'm very proud to have Brady Hoke as Michigan's head coach. Most Michigan fans are, especially since in his first year he has snapped the most frustrating losing streak in Michigan's history. I also say "he" and give him credit because he justly deserves it. Bo Schembechler was given credit for upsetting Ohio State in 1969. The head coach prepares and motivates the team, the players go and execute. 

It is an often unbalanced system, where coaches are rarely recognized for victories but are almost unequivocally given blame for failures. The seniors and the players did a fantastic job, and they deservingly get their credit from Hoke (as well as everyone else), but it was Hoke who transformed the team, not the team which transformed itself. That's why you have coaches in the first place. The buying-in to Hoke's methods combined with a staff that competently coaches has resulted in a good transition and an even quicker turnaround. The demands of trust and hard work were needed and met on both sides.

The victory over Ohio State obviously means more than just one thing. It validates that Hoke was the right hire and is the right man for the job. The man who hired him, athletic director Dave Brandon, admitted that he was actually a little surprised on how well Hoke has done in such a short amount of time—considering the state of the program when he inherited it. 

"Coming off the disappointments of last year, particularly with the performance of our defense, I would have expected it would have taken us longer to be in a position where we have a shot at a BCS bowl berth and a shot at a hugely successful season," Brandon said on a radio show the week before the Ohio State-Michigan game, unaware that Michigan was going to snap the losing streak that Saturday. "Brady has done exactly what I hoped he would do, exactly what I expected him to do, and maybe a little faster than I thought it could be done."

Which brings us to the much larger point. The win against Ohio State confirms Hoke as Michigan's Man, but it also puts a stamp on this being a completely new era. It allows us to look at the night game against Notre Dame as the beginning of a great season, rather than as a repeat of last year. I'll be hesitant to say that "Michigan is back" as Detroit News writer Bob Wojnowski does, or at least "back" in the sense that Michigan is the dominating, national championship contender it was more than a decade ago. Yes, this team has progressed, but it still has a long way to go. What Michigan is now is a team that has a firmer sense of direction and, perhaps even more importantly, a firmer sense of identity.

In the Rodriguez era there was more uncertainty: every game could be lost, and Michigan didn't really scare anybody. If anything, the win over Ohio State proves that Michigan, as a program, can make strides to improve and become as excellent as we remember. I don't know what it was—and a lot of people just blame Rodriguez—but the last years' teams were always full of hope, seemingly ready to make a stride, and then could not get it done. Seeing that year after year was not only frustrating, it was disheartening.

Had Michigan lost to Ohio State, it may not have been as bad as I initially predicted. Michigan would have still been 9-3, a vast improvement over any of the Rodriguez years, but there would have remained that impending sense of uncertainty. Can Michigan ever beat Ohio State, we'd ask? We would go into 2012 never fully sure that Michigan would do well against Alabama in that season opener. Most would probably predict a blowout loss. Let's not go crazy: Michigan still could lose (a loss against Alabama is always possible)but now we can say it's not a foregone conclusion. We don't have any reason to be afraid or uncertain. The coaches have a plan, and they're going to carry it out, and the program is going to be successful.

It has a head coach who is devoted heart-and-soul to the program, the university, and the team. He is competent and demands competence. That's what we've known Michigan to be for so long, but because we fell away from that for the past three years, and we fell away badly, we stopped expecting it. Some of us even stopped believing it could happen. Yet we can see it now, the direction in which the program is headed. We know that Michigan is going to be fine, but we always should have known. There was a head coach who knew all along, and he knew why, and he tried to tell us the reason a long time ago. It was simple and elegant, as most powerful things are.

This is Michigan, he said. That's why.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Season's End Will Determine Hoke's Legacy

Yep, we're talking about that subject again.

All eyes will be on the Big House this Saturday, as Brady Hoke leads the 9-2 Michigan Wolverines onto the field. They will attempt to win against Ohio State, something Michigan has not done since 2003.

The losing streak against the Buckeyes has been painful and frustrating. Every year (except maybe 2008), Michigan had a legitimate chance to snap it and start to tip the rivalry in their favor—or at least make the rivalry interesting again. Instead, it was the same old story, and Ohio State won year after year.

Michigan came into the 2009 contest 5-6 but at home. A win against Ohio State would've meant the Wolverines could finish 6-6, hardly acceptable given Michigan's tradition, but it would definitely been enough to salvage the season emotionally. Michigan would have been bowl eligible, and fans would have felt better about Rich Rodriguez. At least, they would have said, he got this one done. It may have even been seen as Michigan finally turning the corner: Rodriguez, they would have thought, was finally making strides as Michigan's head coach. He would go onto a bowl and may win that one. It would be 6-6, but it would be a turnaround from the disastrously unthinkable 3-9 2008 season, where the Wolverines suffered confusing loss after confusing loss. It would be 6-6, but it would have been enough. It would have been a win against Ohio State. They didn't; Michigan finished 5-7.

2010 was the same story. After a fantastic start, Michigan lost to Michigan State for the third year in a row, and fans realized that the Wolverines' porous defense could not stop anybody. But perhaps it could rally together against the Buckeyes, who were looking for a BCS bowl berth. More importantly, it would give Rich Rodriguez that eighth win he so desperately needed. It was year three, and he needed eight wins. Writers were already saying he'd be fired if he lost that game. Rodriguez's Wolverines had squeaked themselves into bowl eligibility, but a victory against Ohio State would have really allowed everyone a collective sigh of relief. Instead, because of a completely inept defense and a Denard Robinson that was managing injury after a season of constant beat downs, the Wolverines lost again to the Buckeyes. They lost in their bowl game, too.

It was curtains for Rodriguez. Everybody, even his staunchest supporters (and, surprisingly, there were many), could see that. They may have protested, but on some level they knew there was no way Rodriguez could possibly be retained. There would be nothing but uncertainty for the 2011 season, and that's something that the Wolverines certainly did not need. That prospect was also obviously unacceptable to David Brandon.

There are hardly games that coaches are more harshly judged by than this one. There are hardly games that mean more, too. Every school has its rivalries, but Michigan vs. Ohio State is so different because it is often (if not always) the barometer for each season's merit. If Notre Dame goes 1-11 but defeats USC, it is still considered a lasting disappointment. One victory, even against the hated Trojans, cannot avenge a ridiculously dreadful season. Yet if Ohio State goes 1-11 but defeats Michigan, it is considered a lasting success. Rather than talk about how the team only got one win or lost eleven games, they'd say this was the team that lost every game except the one that truly mattered. And someone else would add: we can sleep soundly now. The bizarrely fanatical nature of this rivalry means precisely that their ridiculously dreadful year was avenged.

For Michigan and Ohio State, the season so often is this game.

Michigan needs to win this one because they flat-out deserve it. The Wolverines have endured so much from hiring/firing of Rodriguez, to the attrition and bad press, to the constant unequivocal slaughters every year at the hands of their hated archrivals. On a deeper level, Michigan doesn't just need to win for itself, but for the rivalry. As much as Michigan's players deserve a win, the rivalry deserves it more. Michigan vs. Ohio State has not been interesting since 2006. The Buckeyes have had an unchecked reign of dominance for more than six years. Despite the fact that Michigan deserves a triumph here if only to make the rivalry interesting again, not to mention how the Wolverines have fought so hard to earn it, Buckeye fans (in the midst of a 6-5 season) are frustratingly confident that Ohio State will not only win this game but will win it convincingly.

What's even more frustrating is that it could happen. Michigan was the undisputed Big Ten champion in 2004, coming into the game 11-1, yet they lost to a mediocre Buckeye squad in Columbus. In 2006, the Wolverines and the Buckeyes entered the contest each undefeated, ranked No. 2 and No.1 respectively, and every Michigan fan in America had had enough of this losing streak to Ohio State. On top of that, Michigan wasn't just playing to stop the losses and potentially go to a national championship, they were also playing for Bo Schembechler, who died the night before the game. The Wolverines lost anyway.

A year later, the 2007 contest was Mike Hart and Chad Henne's last best chance to win one game against Ohio State. They lost, and Buckeye fans still sing about the overconfident, trash-talking Mike Hart's 0-4 record to the Scarlet and Gray. Then came Rich Rodriguez, and instead of turning the tables in the rivalry, the losing streak only got worse. With each game against Ohio State, the stakes to win got bigger and bigger, but for the wrong reasons. In 2006 the stakes were to snap an irritating losing streak and go to national championship and re-establish Michigan's place as a college football power. In 2010 it was just desperation. The Wolverines had nothing to lose and everything to gain, and yet they still lost.

Unlike 2008-2010, the 2011 game against Ohio State could tell a very different story. For the first time since 2007, the Wolverines are 8.5 point favorites and are legitimate picks to win. (Michigan was picked to win every time since 2007, even in 2008, on the sheer nature that balance needed to return to the rivalry. It never happened.) Much like the Wolverines in 2009, Ohio State enters the game with a true freshman at quarterback, and a winning season on the line. (The 2009 Wolverines were fighting for bowl eligibility, at 5-6. The Buckeyes here are 6-5. The stakes are quite different, but they are also quite the same.)

Lloyd Carr was placed in the pressure cooker for two reasons: he lost to Appalachian State and he lost to Ohio State four times in a row. He was supposedly forced into retirement, but official history is that he left on his own terms. Rich Rodriguez did not, and the rivalry games are a big reason why.

The entire year, Michigan fans have been hoping Brady Hoke would make things right again. Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller, and Lloyd Carr all won their first games against Ohio State. It was fitting, because they were "Michigan Men." Almost equally fittingly, Rodriguez lost because he wasn't, some say. Brady Hoke, an obvious Michigan Man, has the chance to solidify his legacy at Michigan. A victory over Ohio State would be the biggest kind of fulfillment this season and Hoke's status could ask for.

Ramzy Nasrallah, perhaps the sole reasonable Ohio State blogger, who has a perplexingly immense amount of respect for both Michigan and particularly Brady Hoke, believes that this game is more than winnable for Hoke, but given the recent history of the rivalry and the way Rodriguez's squads performed each year, the stakes could not be higher.

"[Hoke] is now at the brink of a ten-win season in what had been scheduled to be a year of cleaning up the wreckage of the last three years," Ramzy wrote in a recent blog post. "Neutralize Ohio State to end his first run and the tone for the Hoke era is established. It would be the ultimate validation of his stewardship and confirmation of his methods. Should Michigan lose—as an 8.5-point favorite at home to an Ohio State team that is as listless as it is lacking any cohesion—then not only is Hoke's eventual legend weakened, but the success of the 2011 season will be questioned...It has been almost 3,000 days since the Wolverines closed a season in an acceptable fashion. Hoke has to beat Ohio State; he reconfirmed the importance of doing so and made it a job requirement. Michigan hasn't had a finisher for too long. He finds himself selling the same bill of goods that Tressel presented in 2001. If Hoke fails to close as Tressel did, it impacts everything he is trying to do both in Ann Arbor and Ohio."

Jim Tressel began his era at Ohio State with a 7-5 first season, but that seventh win was against Michigan, and that made all the difference. No one was disappointed with the overall season record, and before long Tressel had his squads competing for national championships. Ohio State's interim coach Luke Fickell stands upon the brink of an almost-identical scenario. Lose and he has no choice but to make way for the next Ohio State head coach while being undeservingly despised; win and his first season is remembered just as fondly as Tressel's was, and Fickell becomes a legitimate candidate for the job.

Hoke, as Ramzy points out, has arguably more on the line. In a time when Michigan has faced so little certainty and has even less security, a win against Ohio State is crucial. Under Rodriguez the Wolverines faced increased criticism and anxiety year after year, all of which was punctuated more harshly and sharply because of a loss to the Buckeyes. It didn't just put a sour taste in their mouths because it was often the last game of the season; it brought everything (absolutely everything) into question—and it ended up costing Rodriguez his job. Eventually it will be same for Hoke, if he cannot end the season with a much-deserved victory. Michigan will go to a bowl game, yes, and how it fares against that opponent will be important, but it almost won't matter if the Wolverines can't beat Ohio State when the Buckeyes are at their weakest.

Bo Schembechler solidified his legacy with a victory against Ohio State that became a defining moment in both his career and Michigan's history. It came after a span of mediocrity, and with Ohio State entering as defending national champions, people were skeptical. When Michigan won, that skepticism vanished, and the players carried Schembechler out on their shoulders. Now, the Wolverines are looking to rebound after a worse span of history than what Schembechler inherited. It would certainly be a defining victory for Brady Hoke.

It would mean even more to Michigan. It would mean everything.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Arizona Hires Rich Rodriguez

Former Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez was hired by the University of Arizona to coach the Wildcats' football team, a report said Monday. The news of the hire broke from a deliberate tweet by Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne, showing a picture of Rodriguez and his family wearing Arizona hats.

Rodriguez spent the past six or so months working as an analyst and commentator for CBS Sports, after being fired from Michigan on January 5, 2011, for posting a 15-22 record in three years with the Wolverines. He also had a combined 0-6 record against Michigan State and Ohio State. In his first two years at Michigan, the Wolverines posted losing seasons and did not go to a bowl. Rodriguez's squad finally achieved bowl eligibility in 2010, but were humiliated 52-14 in the Gator Bowl by Mississippi State.

Meanwhile, former Arizona head coach Mike Stoops, who dug Arizona out of the ground and after five years finally brought them to bowl games, but never seemed competitive for the Pac-12 championship, was fired by athletic director Greg Byrne in the middle of the 2011 season. The reason for Stoops' dismissal is generally believed to be his demeanor on the sidelines (i.e. frequently losing his temper) and, perhaps more importantly, starting the season 1-5. Stoops was replaced mid-season with interim coach Tim Kish, the defensive coordinator. Under Kish, the Wildcats defeated UCLA and hated rival Arizona State.

When he fired Stoops, athletic director Greg Byrne said he wanted to take Arizona to the next level, he wanted Arizona competing for Rose Bowls and Pac-12 championships, and while grateful to Stoops for building the program from scratch, Byrne also said that it was time to move on. Byrne then conducted a national search that included former Florida head coach Urban Meyer, who reportedly turned down the job, and former Oregon head coach, Mike Bellotti. However, a lot of this could have merely been a smoke screen, as Byrne said when he started the hire not to trust any source unless it comes directly from him. Two days ago, Byrne announced through his Twitter account that Rich Rodriguez would be the next head football coach at Arizona.

It is a fresh start for both sides, and a chance for bigger and better things. Arizona fans were getting fed up with Stoops' sideline antics, which weren't being tempered by victories, and frustration built up as the Wildcats seemed mired in mediocrity. A change appeared necessary. Meanwhile, Rich Rodriguez, who said repeatedly while at CBS Sports that he hoped someday for an opportunity to be a head coach again, wanted the chance to repair his reputation. Michigan had moved on and was experiencing success. It would only seem fair that he should be able to move on, too. He had been knocked down, sure, but he wanted to get up, dust himself off, and get back on the horse.

Initially, that meant that Rodriguez might have to settle for a less glamorous coaching job or a position as someone's offensive coordinator. Rodriguez himself has always maintained that he wants to be a head coach, but he was just hoping for the opportunity. There were a few that came along. Rodriguez's struggles at Michigan were not enough to keep Tulane from being interested in him. (Rodriguez had been Tulane's offensive coordinator from 1997-1998, where he helped the team to a 12-0 season, a record of success it has not experienced since.) With few options on the table, Rodriguez considered taking the job.

Yet Tulane is not in a BCS conference and, were Rodriguez to become Tulane's head coach, it would be a conscious step back. Tulane's place in a weak conference means that, even undefeated, it can not compete for national championships, which are Rodriguez's ultimate ambition. Rodriguez had reached the pinnacle of college coaching—Michigan—and now it seemed like he'd have to completely start over.

Then, much to Rodriguez's surprise, Arizona came calling. The Wildcats are the only team in what was formerly the Pac-10 to never even make an appearance in the Rose Bowl. They have also been desperate for success ever since John Mackovic cratered the program with abysmal seasons in the early 2000s. Mike Stoops was hired to fix the mess, and he did, but then could not meet the program's newfound expectations. The savvy Greg Byrne would be cautious in his decision about the next guy. Fans were generally optimistic because Byrne had hired Dan Mullen at Mississippi State, a decision which made Byrne a hot commodity as athletic director and helped him get the position at Arizona.

In the press conference where he introduced Rich Rodriguez, Byrne said that he considered a variety of candidates and wanted someone who fit his criteria. Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller talked to Byrne and suggested Rodriguez, calling him "the hungriest guy out there" and "the guy that the other coaches don't want coming to the Pac-12." It also helped that Rodriguez received a glowing recommendation from Urban Meyer, who told Byrne that Rodriguez was "one of the five greatest minds in college football" and said that it would be "an incredible hire for the University of Arizona."

Not surprisingly, given Rodriguez's history, Byrne had some concerns. There was the matter of Rodriguez's 15-22 record at Michigan, his trouble with the NCAA for practice time, and the fact that Rodriguez seems like a magnet for lawsuits. Byrne did his homework, however. He heard Rodriguez's side of the story and checked with the NCAA and compliance office at Michigan to verify it. He also wisely picked up a copy of John U. Bacon's "Three and Out" book, which provides a rigorously detailed, in-depth analysis and exploration of Rodriguez's time at Michigan, why he struggled, and ultimately why he was fired. When Rodriguez learned that Byrne had read "Three and Out," he was surprised. "I think it helps you," Byrne told him.

According to Rodriguez in his introductory press conference, he and Byrne first talked face-to-face about Arizona at his home in Detroit, Michigan. They also had breakfast in New York at a "secret restaurant" to discuss the job. Rodriguez was initially concerned that someone might recognize him, but after the restaurant became packed with customers, no one seemed to notice. Then, towards the end of Rodriguez's meeting with Byrne, a Michigan alumnus noticed Rodriguez and enthusiastically asked, "Hey, Coach Rod! What are you doing here [in New York]?" Rodriguez told him that he had a TV gig with CBS, which was true. The Michigan alumnus did not recognize Byrne. "That would have blown his cover," Rodriguez told the crowd at the press conference on Tuesday, earning a chuckle.

At first it may appear dubious that Rodriguez would be a good fit at a place where expectations were so dangerously high. Then, however, with a little research, one can find that Arizona's expectations, which are squarely on the Rose Bowl, are not greatly insurmountable. Arizona is in the Pac-12 South Division, the weaker of the two, especially since its only two contenders are an ineligible USC and an inconsistent Arizona State. (UCLA is in the contest by sheer luck alone.) The two most difficult teams in the Pac-12 are Oregon and Stanford, but both are in the North Division. Arizona could lose to both and still play in the Pac-12 Championship if it gets by USC and takes care of the weaker teams in the South Division. Getting there would not be like facing the stout teams in the Big Ten's Legends Division.

There is also Rodriguez's spread offense, which seems perfect for the Pac-12 conference. The teams in the conference appear to prefer speed over size—it is not the beefy Big Ten—and several teams already run a spread-type offense, with Oregon as the leader among them. (By the way, if you didn't already know, Rodriguez is one of the original architects of the spread.) The only team that actually has a traditional power-running offense is Stanford. Unlike the Big Ten, where spread teams tend to struggle (Purdue, Northwestern, Nebraska), Rodriguez should do very well here. It will be a lot more like West Virginia than like Michigan.

Rodriguez also inherits a team that he does not need to completely transform in order to run his offense. While the Wildcats graduate senior quarterback Nick Foles, Rodriguez gets to utilize the talents of running quarterback Matt Scott, a definite dual-threat who will be a red-shirt senior in 2012. Rodriguez also gets Ka'Deem Carey, a speedster at running back. Mike Stoops' Air Raid offense is similar to Rodriguez's spread except that it prefers a heavy passing game with as many as five wide receivers. The transition to Rodriguez's spread-option will not take nearly as long as it did at Michigan and will not be as nearly as painful. This is probably the best situation Rodriguez hope could for.

What is even better about Arizona and what ultimately helps Rodriguez is that the program's identity is not so rooted in tradition as Michigan's was with the ideal and security of the "Michigan Man." The Arizona fans don't care if Rodriguez has ties to the program. In fact, given that previous Arizona coaches who did have ties were unsuccessful, many actually prefer Rodriguez on the simple notion that he doesn't. Rodriguez will not have to constantly combat the idea that he doesn't belong. Arizona, which is traditionally known as a basketball school, is still looking for a sense of identity in football. It is practically a blank slate. Rodriguez will be able to shape the image of Arizona's program instead of struggling to uphold it.

He still faces some initial challenges. The first is finding a competent and suitable defensive coordinator. Rodriguez will either have to find someone who can mesh with his philosophy, or he will have to find someone who can coach defense well and run that system independent of Rodriguez's control. (The latter is often pushed for by fans especially because Rodriguez is an offensive mind and because his two defensive coordinators at Michigan—Scott Shafer and Greg Robinson—had hardly any experience with the 3-3-5 defense Rodriguez insisted they run.) A primary target for Rodriguez must be Jeff Casteel, defensive coordinator at West Virginia, who was on Rodriguez's staff there but did not follow him to Michigan. Casteel could easily leave West Virginia, since he has no ties or particular allegiance to Dana Holgorsen, the Mountaineers' current head coach.

The defense for Rodriguez was dooming at Michigan, and it is going to be the most important question he is asked until he is successful. In a one-on-one interview with the Tucson Citizen, Rodriguez was judiciously asked about his plans for defense, particularly if he intends on retaining the 3-3-5 he had at West Virginia where it was effective and at Michigan where it failed.

"I like to run the odd front because it gives you versatility, but even the 3-3-5 now has morphed into a 3-4," Rodriguez said. "I'm going to try to hire the best defensive coordinator I can, and if his schemes and philosophy can match some of the parameters I give him, then we'll do that. I just want to have a great coach and a great scheme. Defensively, things are a little different. In this day and age you have to have more of a variety because one week you might see a spread team and the next week you see two tight ends and I-backs. In this league, you'll see that with Oregon and Stanford. I'm not married, so to speak, to a 3-3-5."

Rodriguez has apparently learned a great deal from his struggles and mistakes at Michigan, and he knows what kind of questions are going to be asked. At his introductory press conference, Rodriguez stressed the importance of the Arizona State rivalry and that he will emphasize it every day. He also said his primary goal for the program is winning the Rose Bowl, a statement which provoked cheers. Rodriguez did not spend time dishing out false promises, however. Though he had many goals, his only actual guarantee was that Arizona would get his best effort and the best effort of his staff.

Realizing from his experience at Michigan that he needs all the initial support he can get, Rodriguez also appealed to the former players, a wise move that he had neglected to do when he first arrived in Ann Arbor. That disconnect did not help him through the struggles of his first few years, and by the time Rodriguez realized how crucial it was to have the former players on his side, it was probably too late. This time, at Arizona, he was intent on not making the same error.

"There's a lot of great players," he said. "I want all you lettermen that are here to know that you have an open invitation to come back and visit with me and visit with our staff. I think it's important that if you gave of yourself as a student-athlete here, and I know all the other coaches feel the same way, that you feel welcome back. And you will. I guarantee you'll feel that, and you're welcome back immediately. And you always have been. I know that, but just because I did not go to the University of Arizona and this is my first time here, don't think for an instant that I don't want you around, because I do. Now I can't let you call the plays, unless you're on the staff, but I do want you around. There's a lot a guys that I want to know. I want you all to tell me, to help me have success here. You know, I want to win the Rose Bowl—at the University of Arizona."

At Arizona, that part about the Rose Bowl may be more important than the part about the former players, since Arizona is not as rigid as Michigan. Again, there is no such thing as an "Arizona man." Still, his appeal to them was shrewd and well-prepared. He still doesn't know everything about Arizona. The difference is, this time, that won't hurt him.

If Rodriguez's first challenge was hiring an effective defensive coordinator, then recruiting will be his second. He has recruited out of Arizona before, gaining commitments from Taylor Lewan and Craig Roh, both from Scottsdale. However, the fact that Rodriguez did not recruit heavily in the area is a concern for some. He recruited a number of players from California and Texas, but even he admits that he still prefers Florida. Rodriguez acknowledged the importance of establishing a recruiting base in Arizona and locking down the state. It will be imperative that Rodriguez hire a West Coast oriented staff or retain some current Arizona assistants (he knew quarterbacks coach Chris Scelfo while at Tulane) to make up for his lack of experience. These are hardly difficult challenges, and Rodriguez will have overcome them within a couple years.

For Michigan fans, Rodriguez has long been a polarizing figure. The mere mention of his name sends us into a flurry of emotions. Some consider him a good person, a genuine guy, while others consider him scum marked by the humorlessly predictable moniker "Dick Rod." The notion of whether Rodriguez and Michigan were a bad fit is hotly debated, and even today there are still those who believe that Rodriguez should be the Wolverines' coach. That is the nature of Rich Rodriguez: there will always be those who love him, and there will always be those who hate him. It is hardly universal either way, though. West Virginians' hatred of Rodriguez is borne out of love because he made them so successful and left for a better opportunity. Yet he was beloved in Morgantown when he was its coach. His departure from his alma mater was a cut that ran deep, and it was almost cathartic to make him the bad guy. It was certainly expected.

His time at Michigan had a similar effect. Rodriguez produced the worst seasons in the history of the program, punctuated with the worst defenses. Yet even before that, Rodriguez was on the ropes because he was such an outsider. His hire alone had so many implications. It meant so many things would change, not just in Michigan's brand name offense but the very identity of what it was to be a "Michigan Man." Though Rodriguez was not the first outsider Michigan hired, he was the first departure from the school of Schembechler. The Michigan faithful had long become comfortable with the Legacy of Bo. That, to them, was Michigan football. Rodriguez, to those who hated him, was a threat to that.

Rodriguez's mistakes at Michigan are frequently discussed, yet John U. Bacon insists that Michigan committed just as many sins as Rodriguez. They did not embrace him. They did not give him full support. At a banquet in Ann Arbor in 2008, one former player got up to the lectern and said, "I better not see any of your guys from West Virginia on our sidelines! This is our program!" He was never reprimanded.

Yet Rodriguez will doubtfully be remembered as the coach who didn't get a fair shake. I will personally remember Rodriguez as the guy not who squandered Michigan's tradition, but who didn't understand it—or at least did not understand it fully. When you become the head coach of Michigan, you are given the keys to the kingdom. You are the keeper of the legacy of the coaches like Yost and Schembechler, who built Michigan into the winningest program in college football. This is why so many people ground the identity of the program in its history, and this is why they were so affected by Rodriguez. It was an incredible departure.

One of the best kept secrets about Rodriguez (largely his own doing) was that he embraced Michigan's tradition. He frequently utilized it in the locker room to motivate players. He talked about it constantly with them. What Rodriguez didn't do, and why so many people didn't think he was a Michigan Man, was take that devotion to the public, and show the fans that he cared about all the right things. If you put Rodriguez's locker room speeches to the Wolverines next to Brady Hoke's press conferences, it's hard to tell the difference.

Rodriguez will instead be remembered for bringing Michigan fans a newfound appreciation for Lloyd Carr, whose legacy some felt did not get the appropriate amount of respect it deserved when Carr relinquished his position, despite the loss to Appalachian State and the losing streak to Ohio State. Rodriguez's 3-9 season of 2008 makes Carr's 8-4 season of 2007 look like unparalleled success. Rodriguez's seasons never reached eight wins at Michigan, and Carr is now in the College Football Hall of Fame. He is the revered figure his players wanted him to be, while Rodriguez is seen as the guy who created a mess that Brady Hoke had to come in with Greg Mattison and fix. For Michigan, the old ways are back, and no one in Ann Arbor could be happier.

Admittedly, we at the Michigan Fanatic give Rodriguez a lot of heat for his decisions, but these opinions and statements are largely based in the result of those decisions rather than a simple, personal bias or hatred. Personally, I don't hate Rodriguez. I believe he is a genuine guy who gave three years of his life to the Michigan football program in a way more intimate than any fan ever will. He was something most people will never be: he was Michigan's head coach. He was closer than any of us.

His firing was necessary, because I could not look at 2011 and see that we had a chance to win the Big Ten under him, but I did not want Rodriguez to fall into an eternal pit of despair after he was fired. Thankfully, he didn't. CBS hired him, and within a year, he has found another coaching job at a program in a BCS conference. His stint at Michigan will be but a blip on his career. After everything we experienced with Rodriguez during his time here, and everything that he experienced from us, the man deserves some success and happiness.

At Arizona, I hope he finds it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Wolverines Capitalize on Nebraska's Mistakes in 45-17 Win

Did anyone see this win coming? Well, I certainly didn't.

Speculation in college football is often a cruel mistress. We often try to make bold predictions and at other times still be skeptical. We look at games on the schedule and where we are as a team and think, "There's no way we can win that one." Well, after Michigan defeated Nebraska in a 45-17 rout, I looked pretty silly for saying before the season that the Wolverines only a 17% chance of winning. I also said that Michigan wasn't a dominating team. Both appear to be wrong.

Well, sort of: I still won't say that Michigan is a dominating team, but I will say that they are significantly improved. Significantly. It almost looks like a completely different squad out there. That's what's so baffling: these are by and large the same players that Rich Rodriguez had during the 2010 season, where Michigan went 7-5 and lost those seven games (as well as a sixth in the Gator Bowl) in the most embarrassing way possible. Last year, Michigan was ranked 112th in yards allowed. Now they're ranked 14th in total defense. There is no question you can ask except: What the hell happened?!

A lot of it is Brady Hoke, and the rest of it is Greg Mattison. (Also, side props to defensive backs coach Curt Mallory.) To change a defense so dramatically in the span of one year is beyond remarkable. I'm still blown away by it. During the game against Nebraska, former Florida head coach and current ESPN color commenter Urban Meyer said that Michigan had "the most improved defense in America." He is certainly right.

The reason why the Wolverines beat Nebraska so convincingly is largely because of three words: time of possession. Michigan had the ball for roughly 42-43 minutes of the entire game, while Nebraska had it for 17-18 minutes. That's the defense keeping Nebraska off the field—the Cornhuskers didn't convert a third down until the fourth quarter—and the Michigan offense maintaining control of the ball and wearing the Nebraska defense down. Fans saw what happens when Michigan is able to establish a running game: Fitzgerald Toussaint powered his way over Nebraska, and quarterback Denard Robinson had a good game on the ground too. That threat, combined with Denard's good passing game (he had a beautiful touchdown pass to wide receiver Martavious Odoms at the fifty to the endzone), was too much for Nebraska to handle.

Michigan still faced its share of challenges. The power had gone out in Michigan Stadium and players were unable to see the play clock. The officials used hand signals to show when it was counting down. At least one time Denard Robinson suffered a delay of game penalty because he had watched the umpire instead of the official hand-signaling the countdown. Brady Hoke, however, took the blame for the mistake. "The first one, the penalty we had, that's on me," he said. "I should have called a timeout. For me not to do that, that's bad coaching." (The Michigan fan base later helped Denard out by vocally counting down the play clock. The power was eventually restored to Michigan Stadium.)

Detroit News writer Bob Wojnowski, who had called for the firing of Rich Rodriguez last November after the loss to Ohio State, says that Brady Hoke has brought Michigan back to prominence. "They pounded with power and attacked with animosity," Wojnowski wrote of the Michigan-Nebraska game in his weekly column. "On a chilly November afternoon, you could see it again, and you finally can say it again. Michigan's football identity is back, quicker than expected. And also just in time. This wasn't the final piece of evidence, but it certainly was the most compelling. What happened Saturday in Michigan Stadium is what used to happen. A big, physical foe rolled into town and ran smack into a wall of pads. The Wolverines' 45-17 rout of the Cornhuskers was their best game of the year, by far, and the loudest statement of the Brady Hoke era, by far."

Was this game a statement? Yes, it was. Michigan showed a full Big House against Nebraska exactly what they would have been if they had capitalized on the mistakes of Iowa and Michigan State. They would have easily won. They established a running game and stopped Nebraska from running the ball. It seems like an old, tired adage, but right now it feels like nothing could be closer to the truth. The tougher team usually wins.

Make no mistake: Nebraska had a tough team against Michigan. Quarterback Taylor Martinez ran effectively several times, showing the speed that put him in Heisman talks early in the season, and when he saw a receiver run past Michigan's safeties, he threw a touchdown. However, Nebraska lost because it committed too many errors on special teams and could not offset Michigan's seemingly magical ability to force turnovers. (The Cornhuskers had five turnovers, while the Wolverines had one.) It was a welcome game between two teams who argue over who was the true National Champion in 1997. If this game was the decider, Michigan won.

During the entire game, Chris Spielman and Urban Meyer talked about how much of a threat Denard Robinson is when he is allowed to run. "He is a runner first and a passer second," Meyer said. They were also critical of the games when Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges decided to limit Robinson's carries, despite the reasoning that the coaches didn't want him to get injured. "If I'm the opposing coach," Spielman said, "I'm happy to see Devin Gardner come out."

Denard was mainly allowed to cut loose because it is that time of the season. Granted, he didn't carry the entire offense on his back as he did under Rich Rodriguez—and he'll be thanking Fitzgerald Toussiant for bearing the majority of the load—but Denard did get a lot of carries in this game largely because Michigan doesn't really have anything to lose. They won't be playing in the Big Ten championship, and the only regular-season game following this one is Ohio State, so why hold back? The trepidation that Denard Robinson will get injured before the game against the Buckeyes is now gone, and that means look out.

As much as this game was a satisfying victory, I think the main reason why it feels so good is because it's a sign of things to come. Spielman and Meyer also talked at length about the freshmen that are on the field on defense (Brennan Beyer, Blake Countess, Desmond Morgan, in particular) and how they're making impact plays. 

"When you have three true freshmen that are big time players and contributors on your defense, that kind of shows where a little bit of their talent might have been depleted on the defensive side over the years, and that shows what Brady Hoke is doing as far as recruiting," Spielman said. "And once they get the talent that they need at Michigan—they're a Michigan defense now—they'll really be a Michigan defense when that talent starts rolling in."

It's certainly an encouraging thought. It was an even better win—and, for these players, after everything they've been through, it was even more deserved. Michigan now stands at 9-2.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Michigan Defense Makes Tough Stand against Illinois, Will Face Stiff Test against Nebraska

Michigan defeated Illinois last Saturday, 31-14, largely because of what looked like an overpowering defense. Last week, the Wolverines had dropped 9 ranks in the polls after their loss to Iowa, going from No. 15 to No. 24 for the Illinois game. Michigan apparently fixed a lot of its mistakes—though there are still many—as it was able to score a touchdown on its first drive and shut out Illinois for the entire first half. We have really seen the difference between last year's coaches and the one led by Greg Mattison and Brady Hoke.

Despite giving up two touchdowns and a couple of big plays, the defense overall had an outstanding game. It is perhaps more outstanding because, with mostly the same players, the team gave up 65 points in a triple overtime win only a year earlier. 2010's defense couldn't stop anybody. In this game the defense racked up four sacks, limiting Illinois to 37 net rushing yards. The defense was hardly flawless, however. At least three times the defenders bit on the zone-read option play when Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse kept the ball himself, and one of those resulted in one of Illinois's two touchdowns.

Aside from Michigan's sacks, the defense was impressive in its third down stance. Illinois only converted 5 of 17 third downs, many of which were on third and one. Michigan cornerback J.T. Floyd also played well: he not only did a good job containing Illinois primary receiver A.J. Jenkins, but Floyd also picked off one of Scheelhasse's passes and returned it for 43 yards. Again, this might not sound like much, but it is impressive given how much Scheelhasse and the Illinois offense was able to completely pick apart the Michigan defense last year. This squad has really improved.

Most of Michigan's struggles, however, came on offense. Denard Robinson scored Michigan's first two touchdowns rushing, but his total rushing yards were limited. He was also injured in the second half, which prompted Devin Gardner to play from under center. Gardner himself has been questionable all year, despite our encouraging profile piece on him a while back. Gardner did show a bit of improvement as quarterback, most notably with a pass to Martavious Odoms that went for a touchdown. Our estimation is that Gardner will improve with more experience. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint also had a really good game, racking up a career-high 192 yards rushing. Illinois never even sniffed that.

As is often the case following a win, there's a lot of optimism around the Michigan blogs and a lot of praise surrounding the defense. In both their posts and weekly podcast, MGoBlog gives rightful props to the defense and is quite impressed with J.T. Floyd:
A.J. Jenkins may have gotten his requisite eight catches for 100 yards but Scheelhaase had to work for it. At one point they showed some Jenkins stats and noted that he had five catches… and fourteen targets. According to Adam Jacobi he ended with eight on 20. That's 5 [yards per attempt] throwing to a guy who may be the best [wide receiver] in the Big Ten.

Even that undersells Floyd's day. The deep ball that took Jenkins's stats from mediocre to decent was zone coverage in the middle of the field Floyd was not directly responsible for (and it came after Scheelhaase was given all day). When involved Floyd was all over double moves and jumped a third and short pass for the interception that sealed the game with a little help from Gardner and Odoms.
Dave at Maize n Brew has let out a much-needed sigh of relief that Michigan was finally able to get to eight wins, something it hasn't achieved since 2007. "The transformation of this defense has been astounding," he wrote. "Through 10 games Michigan has 21 sacks. This compared to a paltry 18 sacks through 13 games last season. Over the past three years Michigan's defense has allowed Juice Williams, Justin Siller, and Matt McGloin to torch it. Read that again and try not to cry. But today... man... it's just amazing. This is now a defense that corralled a mobile, talented quarterback to the tune of four sacks and a pick. Even more impressive, they held Illinois to just 37 yards rushing. 37 yards. That's almost a 10th of the 315 rushing yards they gave up a year ago. The difference is night and day. And the difference is shown in the win column. Eight."

This was a good win. Michigan still isn't a world-beater on both sides of the ball, but it was nice to see the Wolverines get down in the grit and stuff Illinois when they absolutely had to. That's why defense is so important: when the other team isn't scoring, even if your own offense isn't as productive as you'd like them to be, it still takes a lot of the pressure off.

"We are really proud of our kids," defensive-minded Brady Hoke said in a recent press conference, "and how they played on Saturday, how they went out there as a team. I think we really complemented each other as a football team, in a lot of ways. Offensively, taking the ball down in the first possession and scoring always helps you, from a mindset and your enthusiasm when you play the game. Defensively, I thought our defense played awfully well, and played together."

Michigan last two games of the regular season will be played at home, the first of which is against Nebraska. This will arguably be the toughest test Michigan, and certainly their defense, will face before a bowl game. (Ohio State, having lost to Purdue but having beaten Wisconsin, is difficult to analyze.) Nebraska has played well all year, with its only two losses of the season so far coming to Wisconsin, which was expected, and Northwestern, in an upset. MGoBlog isn't too worried about Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, however: "…if you've ever watched Martinez throw…eesh. Imagine Denard passing, but instead of an arm he has a chicken wing. Expect to see Jordan Kovacs nuzzling the line of scrimmage frequently."

Meanwhile, Nebraska's defense may prove to be the difference. It is a lot better than Michigan State's. Recently Michigan's offensive coordinator Al Borges has said that the Nebraska defense is "good. Well coached. I had an opportunity to coach against coach Pelini when I was at Auburn. They do a great job with their four match zone, where they take your guys away. They cover you. They're one of those defenses like a couple we're played this year that really want to take it all away. They don't want the ball checked down. They don't want the ball thrown down field. They want to take away the run. There's no bend but don't break in their style. They know what they're doing, and they know how to coach."

Before the season started, Nebraska was the game I was most worried about, giving Michigan's chance to win a measly 17%. The season has evolved and changed a lot since then: I also expected Michigan to lose to what I thought was going to be a very prepared Notre Dame.

Can Michigan afford to lose to Nebraska? Well, yes and no. As a true fanatic, I can't say that Michigan is ever allowed to lose any game, but like Iowa, a loss to Nebraska won't be soul-crushing. They are a good team who have come into the Big Ten and have made a statement. 

Like most of the Big Ten teams, however, they've also been upset in surprising defeats. I almost want to say that Michigan should use this game as preparation for Ohio State, because that's essentially all it is. Michigan will not be going to the inaugural Big Ten Championship game, which we never really expected since all we wanted was an 8-4 season with OSU and MSU being among those eight.

Illinois had a good rushing defense, but Michigan dominated it. Nebraska, of course, is better, but since Michigan wasn't completely routed or stalled by the Illini, there is the thought that they can muster the same performance. Hopefully it would carry over, because Ohio State has a good defense, too.

It will be an adequate test, before the ultimate one.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Penn State Sex Scandal Shakes Program to the Core

Not even Joe Paterno could survive this one.

In what has been one of the most dramatic and troubling weeks of college football, the Penn State football program has decided to clean house in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal.

Sandusky, Paterno's defensive coordinator from 1977 to 1999, was arrested after allegations were made that he had molested and even raped young boys in his charitable foundation, the Second Mile. The scandal got worse as revelations emerged about the involvement of head coach Joe Paterno, athletic director Tim Curley, and finance officer Gary Schultz, all of whom had knowledge of the allegations but never reported it to the police. Schultz himself was in charge of campus police.

The Huffington Post lays out a timeline of Sandusky's tenure at Penn State and chronicles the abuse. Paterno first learned of the Sandusky allegations from Mike McQueary (a graduate assistant at the time), who reportedly witnessed Sandusky molest a boy in the showers and told Paterno about it. Paterno then informed Tim Curley, the athletic director. Sandusky was banned from bringing young boys onto campus. He retired but still retained emeritus status and an office on campus, in the building where the allegations took place. It was never reported to law enforcement.

Penn State fans say that Joe Paterno met his legal obligation by informing his superior (Curley) of the allegations, but Paterno came under fire from the media, critics, and families of the victims for never following up and never reporting it to the police once it was clear that the athletic department wasn't going to get law enforcement involved. This is especially damaging given Joe Paterno's long history of promoting integrity and serving as a model that Penn State "does things the right way." Some of the allegations against Sandusky are believed to have taken place even while he was on Paterno's staff. There are as many as eight victims who have come forward and testified that Sandusky molested them.

The reactions to this case have been visceral. In the wake of Sandusky's arrest and imminent trial, Curley and Schultz are both facing criminal charges for perjury and failing to report child abuse. They have each stepped down from their positions: Schultz has resigned, and Curley asked for an extended leave of absence.

Shortly after the news of the allegations broke, Penn State University president Graham Spanier offered what he called his "unconditional support" for both Curley and Schultz. Spanier has since been fired as university president. On Wednesday, November 9, Joe Paterno announced that he would retire at the end of the season. However, the Penn State board of trustees convened and decided that it was "in the best interests" of the university for Paterno to be relieved of his duties immediately. With students surrounding his house, Paterno learned in a phone conversation with the board of trustees that he had been fired, and board officials made a formal announcement less than an hour later.

As many media outlets point out, the story has become less about Jerry Sandusky's sex abuse of minors and more about the firing of Joe Paterno, who has been the head coach of Penn State for forty-five years and has recently become the winningest coach in Division I football. Because the aspects of this case concern the welfare of children, and because molestation charges often evoke such intense reactions of both disgust and anger, there have been heated emotions on both sides. While some were calling for Joe Paterno and the entire Penn State football staff to step down, and were happy when they got their wish when Paterno announced his retirement, students took to the streets in protest when they learned that Paterno had been fired. Random acts of violence and property damage ensued, including a news vehicle being tipped over.

When the news of the allegations first broke on the blogosphere, Penn State fans said everything they could to keep Joe Paterno from being targeted and blamed. The Grand Jury that indicted Jerry Sandusky had concluded that Paterno himself would not be charged like Curley and Schultz, since he had reported the abuse to them. However, critics have said that Joe Paterno, while meeting his "legal obligation," failed to meet his "moral obligation" in the case. The failure of reporting Sandusky to authorities on the part of Penn State officials (Curley, Schultz, Paterno, Spanier, and even McQueary) allowed Sandusky to enjoy freedom for more than twenty years as he continued to molest more victims. Paterno admitted that he wished he did more.

This has been a grim reminder that, as sad as the firing of Joe Paterno was, there are more important things in life than college football. Yes, the end of Paterno's tenure at Penn State is a tragedy for the game of football—but football is just a game. What Sandusky was allowed to do, because he was never brought to justice until now, has destroyed the lives of so many children, and no Big Ten championships or national championships will ever be able to erase that. When ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit was asked about the scandal and the firing of Joe Paterno, Herbstreit made an interesting point, although Penn State fans will likely find it controversial.

"The one thing that I think we sometimes overlook when we're discussing this is that this isn't an NCAA infraction," Herbstreit said. "These are the most unthinkable acts that can cross your mind, and this doesn't have anything to do with the NCAA, with Penn State, and with Penn State football, and Joe Paterno. This is like off the Richter scale as far as what we're trying to deal with, so people who are rioting, and people who are showing up and supporting Joe Paterno—listen, we're all in your camp. Everything that Joe meant, everything that he still means to the sport of college football, we get that, but this is bigger than that. This is bigger—than Joe Paterno and being the winningest coach in college football. There's going to be a time to celebrate his career. This isn't about celebrating his career. This is not the time to think about Joe Paterno. To me, this is the time to think about what these young boys were facing, and what they still face, and what their parents face. That's what this is about."

It's hard to see where Penn State, as a program, goes from here. Hardly anyone associated with Penn State or college football remembers a time when Joe Paterno was not the head coach. Personally, I believed that Penn State needed to clean house. It needed to start a new chapter, turn the page, so that it can give justice to the victims and move forward as a college football program.

Joe Paterno's decision to retire at the end of the season was, in my opinion, absolutely the right call, but I was less thrilled to learn that he had been fired. While I can understand the board of trustees' decision, I don't necessarily agree with it. I thought Paterno's retirement was a happy medium, a way for Penn State to turn the page but Paterno, who is guilty of not reporting Sandusky's crimes to police but was also not complicit in covering them up, could leave the program with some dignity—after everything he has done to help Penn State.

This would have been different if the scandal broke out at the start of the season and overshadowed the program for months. But it's just three weeks, which would have gone by before anyone knew it. It was just three more games, and potentially the Big Ten championship. Joe Paterno was not going to be the coach in 2012. He was already stepping down. Now, with his firing, the board of trustees made an incredibly difficult and obviously controversial decision that has resulted in student riots and will likely have more backlash for weeks, months, and perhaps even years to come. But it was what they felt they had to do.

Anyone who is a fan of college football probably has respect for Joe Paterno, who is considered by many to be a living legend. He is essentially Penn State's version of Bo Schembechler. Despite his many positive contributions, Paterno's unceremonious firing, which some consider to be the necessary move, will likely tarnish his legacy. Penn State can no longer boast its sterling reputation or unblemished record. The immediate impact of Paterno's departure will be felt most by Penn State's seniors, who will have to finish the season without the football coach they wanted to play for when they first committed. No one expected the Jerry Sandusky scandal to be completely overblown. It has shaken the program to the core. When news first broke of the allegations and what it would mean for the program, a Penn State fan wrote on a blog: "This is Penn State's darkest day."

Tom Bradley will serve as the interim head coach for the remainder of the season. CBS Sports reported that Mike McQueary, who witnessed Sandusky raping a child and afterwards informed Paterno, will not be on the sidelines on Saturday. Paterno, who was hoping to leave Penn State at the end of the season, announced his retirement so that the board would not have to debate a decision. He was disappointed to learn that the board would not allow him to finish the season, and he later issued a statement regarding his dismissal.

"I am disappointed with the Board of Trustees' decision, but I have to accept it," he said. His supporters continue to flock to his home in droves, but Paterno told them to pray for the victims and their families.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Gameplay Against Iowa Exposes Michigan's Weaknesses

Well, we're at that point in the season, the point where we can start to see exactly what kind of team we have.

In the first half of the season, we tried as hard as we could to remain objective. Michigan seemed like a team that wasn't a world-beater but was a team that still found a way to win. Now, well into the meat of the Big Ten, we know the sober truth: Michigan certainly isn't a world-beater, and it has weaknesses. Despite Brady Hoke's high hopes for his first season, the Wolverines will not contend for the Big Ten title.

To some degree, this was to be expected. It was Hoke's first year, he and Borges are trying to gradually incorporate the pro-style offense while still retaining elements of Rich Rodriguez's spread, and the defense is steadily improving. As much as Hoke loves Michigan and wants to win championships, we knew there was a difference between being realistic and being unrealistic. A Big Ten title in Hoke's first year seemed out of the question at first, then Michigan's first six games gave us a little too much optimism, and now we're back.

This isn't to say that Hoke hasn't done a phenomenal job for a first year Michigan head coach. He did a great job uniting the fanbase, locking down the state's top recruits, and starting his coaching era with a bang. 

His team played their hearts out against a Notre Dame team that they probably should have lost to and instead won. The Wolverines faced the team that Hoke built in San Diego and, despite a capable Ryan Lindley and dangerous Ronnie Hillman, stalled them. Northwestern made us believe that Hoke's team could overcome virtually any obstacles.

However, the fact remains: Michigan has a long way to go. Iowa showed us what happens when Michigan cannot establish a solid running game, and it reminded us that, while Michigan may have talent, it is not dominating. Michigan has gone from being especially bad to being mediocre—which is why the defense looks so good. Mediocre teams beat bad ones every day of the week, but it can't stand up to the solid, really good ones. Don't get me wrong: this is a necessary stage in Michigan's improvement. It is unreasonable to expect greatness overnight.

Michigan mounted a last-ditch effort to take Iowa into overtime, driving all the way to the goal line, but it wasn't meant to be. Michigan fans everywhere will gripe about the fourth-and-goal pass interference on Roy Roundtree that wasn't called. They will say that Michigan could have won, and they'd be right. Michigan could have won this game, but their slow start finally came back to haunt them. After the Wolverines failed to produce points on their opening drive, they spent the entire game trying to play catch up. The defense kept the game close (although Jake Ryan was mysteriously absent), but Michigan's greater weaknesses have been exposed on offense. Iowa did exactly what Michigan State did: prevent Michigan from establishing the run, force Denard Robinson to pass, and get him out of rhythm. The only difference between this game and the Notre Dame one was that Iowa prevented Robinson from getting into a rhythm for the entire game.

As I walked out of the bar where I had watched the Michigan game, someone saw my Michigan gear and asked, "How did Michigan do today?"

"We lost," I said. "To Iowa."



It was a sobering reminder of what Michigan used to be: a dominating team. Iowa may have recently gotten good, basing their offensive and defensive models off of old-school Michigan and Ohio State because that's what you needed in the Big Ten, but Michigan was always better—until the radical departure brought by Rich Rodriguez.

Now, I'm not going to harp on Rodriguez about this. He genuinely believed that his spread and 3-3-5 could work in the Big Ten, and even today there are proponents who continue to argue this. Then there's too much evidence to the contrary, and that evidence being Big Ten teams who roll over us: despite the Michigan's defense's effort, Iowa's Marcus Coker's power running was their primary reason for yardage and, ultimately, scores. It would have been uglier if Michigan didn't have Greg Mattison.

Of course, a lot of Michigan fans are griping about the offense. MGoBlog, a continued advocate for Rich Rodriguez, has taken an obligatory turn to the negative and the unhopeful: "Michigan's played three games against BCS teams with winning records. In each they've fallen behind by multiple scores. Yardage in those games before entering desperation chuck mode: 130 (Notre Dame), 226 (MSU), and 166 (Iowa). Whatever the plan is, it doesn't seem to be working against teams better than Minnesota." The article's writer, Brian Cook, believes that the primary reason for Michigan's recent struggle is the possibility that Denard Robinson isn't being used effectively:
"Denard has limitations. They are severe. He has assets that offset those. They are not being used effectively. He was an All-American last year and is being derided as plain 'not very good' on blogs; he won't sniff a Heisman vote. He's gone backwards. The question is why. Candidate answers: a) Losing Martell Webb, Darryl Stonum, and Steve Schilling, b) Losing Rich Rodriguez, c) Aging backwards like Benjamin Button. I'll take door B."
To clarify, Denard Robinson was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in 2010, but he was not an All-American. Michigan also struggled against the tougher Big Ten teams (including Iowa) last year, under the leadership of Rich Rodriguez. So I'm less inclined to believe that Rodriguez is the component missing in order to make Michigan beat every team it faces.

What we can say along those lines, however, is that Rodriguez's effect is still being felt: more than half of the players on Michigan's team were identified and recruited by Rodriguez. He notably preferred speed over size. With him gone, the players have done their best to work with the new coaches, they have worked extremely hard, and a lot of that has paid off. But it's not a dominating team, or Michigan would have put Iowa away in the first half.

This leaves us looking towards the future, again. Michigan has three opportunities left to prove that they are a different team from 2010. Nebraska will likely be the toughest bout, despite being played in Michigan Stadium, and Ohio State is getting back to its old self. The pressure to beat the Buckeyes rises with each loss, and I'm not excited about the bowl Michigan will play in. (I'm hoping for the Texas Bowl, but even that won't be pretty.)

Michigan will have to use every game as an opportunity for improvement. They need to get better. I'm confident that Brady Hoke can do that, but it doesn't change the fact that I'm also very nervous about the rest of the season.