Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Fall of Sparta

(Note: I originally had this posted as an op-ed on the blog, Maize n' Brew, but the editor deemed it too controversial. To spare him any more headaches, and because this blog is independent, I've posted it here.)

A few days ago, on Friday, October 19, the day before the Michigan vs. Michigan State game, Chris Vannini of the Spartan blog "The Only Colors" wrote a highly-rec'd op-ed about his feelings concerning the outlook of the Michigan State program, ironically titling it "Hail to the Victors."

In it Vannini describes the personal journey of how he came to be a Michigan State fan. Like many children of football families in the suburbs of Detroit, where Michigan almost unilaterally holds dominion on local college football interest, much in the same way Red Wings dominate hockey and Tigers dominate baseball, he grew up rooting for the Maize and Blue. While in high school, he then made it his "No. 1 goal" to get into Michigan.

Unfortunately, like many who apply to Michigan, for whatever reason he received a deferring letter. He ended up picking Michigan State and subsequently writes a blog about Spartan football and how much he hates the Wolverines.

I know a similar story where a friend of mine named Jon had similar aspirations in high school, and in senior year of English class he read to us his application essay for Michigan, with the topic "Who do you most admire?" The person he most admired was his brother, a Michigan alumnus, and how he was a "Michigan Man."

It was shameless pandering, and it didn't work. Though rejected from Michigan, he received a football scholarship to Michigan State and played linebacker for four years under Mark Dantonio. Thanks to Dantonio's diplomatic Buckeye tutelage, Jon now claims to have been a "Spartan since birth," and when Michigan State defeated Michigan in 2010, securing their third consecutive win for the first time since 1967, he sent me a picture on Facebook with him and the Paul Bunyan Trophy.

"Three years in a row," the caption read. "I love beating these guys!"

It was probably at that moment when I lost a great deal of respect for Michigan State and for my friend. Because he came from a place where, like Vannini, his primary aspiration was getting into Michigan, and then to act as if he'd always been a Spartan, from then on I have firmly and unequivocally hated Michigan State.

I still respect people who grew up MSU fans, because they're being true to who they are. But to have all these deep allegiances to Michigan, go to MSU, and then start spewing hate about the team you used to root for as a child, that's not exactly classy.

(It should be noted, however, that Chris Vannini's willingness to admit his past with Michigan openly and honestly is admirable. Most Michigan State fans of that origin choose to deny it or keep it to themselves.)

Look, I get it. It must be really, really tough to be a Spartan. It must really suck to walk into biology class at MSU and see a fellow student wearing a Block-M sweatshirt. It must doubly suck to be told from a CMU grad that your MSU degree is meaningless. Even though Michigan State accepts more than four times as many applicants as does Michigan, and ten times as many from in-state, it's still not a bad school. It's not a community college.

It must also suck how Michigan gets all the national attention, and how every year a Wolverine wins the September Heisman. Except for this year, when Le'Veon Bell won it, and Michigan State was almost universally picked to compete again for the Big Ten championship--well, at least by everyone working at the Big Ten Network.

Yes, Michigan gets unfair attention when haven't necessarily deserved it, but so does Texas, Ohio State, and Notre Dame. They get that attention because of decades of success. A few years of struggling teams is not going to make them irrelevant overnight. No, you need decades of mediocrity to do that.

Even the most die-hard Spartan will tell you that John L. Smith created a losing culture in East Lansing. When Mark Dantonio came in and lost to Lloyd Carr in 2007, everyone thought it would be more of the same.

What Dantonio did to Michigan State's program is significant. He capitalized when Michigan was down, beating a weary Wolverine team in 2008, and squeaking out another win in 2009, which solidified him as Michigan State's coach of the future.

He also took advantage of the gaps in in-state recruiting that Rich Rodriguez left open for two years, who instead preferred to recruit nationally until pressured by program alums to scout talent closer to home. Those recruiting classes of 2007, 2008, and 2009 helped Dantonio to back-to-back 11-win seasons.

Then he got what every coach needs: a great quarterback. Among those crucial recruits was Kirk Cousins, who became Michigan State's winningest quarterback and is arguably its best quarterback of all time statistically. Likeable and well-spoken, intelligent and determined, Cousins became an icon for how great a Spartan could be. For the first time in a long time, there were a few Michigan fans who were jealous.

Cousins may be the classiest thing to ever come out of East Lansing, despite his 2011 post-game interview, where his celebratory remarks were strikingly similar to Mike Hart's in 2007. Michigan State loves them that trash talk, yo.

Since Cousins' departure, the Spartans obviously haven't been the same. We can now see what an impact Cousins made on his team, despite being a lowly 2-star coming out of high school (he was clearly underrated). Cousins' heir, Andrew Maxwell, has shown neither the poise nor the ability to rally his team the way his predecessor did.

Michigan State fans cite three reasons for the loss to Michigan: the offensive coordinator, Dan Roushar, the kicker, Dan Conroy, and the refs. However, all three of these are false.

While there may have been a few calls or non-calls that the referees made that were favorable to Michigan, and I see how Spartan fans would be upset with that, there were just as many calls that favored Michigan State. The most egregious example is when Le'Veon Bell fumbled and Michigan recovered it, but the officials ruled Bell down (when even the commentators saw it was an obvious fumble) and it wasn't even challenged.

Conroy's missed field goal in the first quarter did not decide the game. No field goal in the first quarter does. It was Brendan Gibbons' field goal at the end of the game that decided it.

Finally, Dan Roushar. The reason why Michigan State lost this game was not because of him; they lost because of Andrew Maxwell. It doesn't matter how good your offensive coordinator is when your quarterback is overthrowing wide-open receivers. There were several opportunities where Aaron Burbridge and Keith Mumphrey got separation from the Michigan cornerbacks but Maxwell was nowhere near on target.

The difference between Kirk Cousins and Andrew Maxwell should now be painfully apparent to Michigan State fans, despite many of them claiming that not only would Maxwell be as good as Cousins, he'd be better. Cousins played like a star quarterback. He led the team and rallied them when they needed it. Maxwell has played like he always has: like a back-up quarterback. He keeps the offense from completely imploding but makes no strides to take control of the game.

If Maxwell is the first reason why Michigan State lost, Michigan's defense is almost certainly the second. Michigan State fans refuse to acknowledge this.

"Honestly with any other offensive coordinator in division one, we are a better team," said one Michigan State fan. I can sympathize that Roushar's 2-and-10 pass on MSU's final drive that ended in a punt when Michigan had no timeouts was hardly the best call, and if one call did lose the game for Michigan State from their standpoint, that was probably it. However, it was Michigan's defense, not Michigan State's offensive coordinator, that was the prevailing force in why the Spartans lost on Saturday.

It was even more crushing because this, the Michigan game, was Michigan State's season. With two conference losses, one to Ohio State and one to Iowa, Spartans already knew that they weren't going to compete for the Big Ten title this year. Which SpartanDan pointed out after the loss to Iowa:

The division race is pretty much over for us.
Even if we win out, we'd need at least two (possibly three) losses from Iowa and another one from Michigan. And winning out doesn't look at all likely at this point. Missing out on a bowl entirely is a possibility now, though I still think we probably get the last two to avoid that.

Michigan State didn't really have anything left to play for except the bragging rights against Michigan, and now even those are gone. The Spartans are 4-4 and are staring down the possibility of not even going to a bowl game--although this is severely unlikely.

As a Michigan alumnus, I obviously took great pride in seeing Michigan State lose after the sense of false accomplishment that gave them a momentary sense of entitlement. For all their continuous talk of being the underdog, the Spartans seemed like they finally hit the big leagues: they stopped hoping to win and started expecting to win.

Those feelings have evaporated now.

The once-proud Spartan football team is now a shell of its former self, and unless Dantonio can find him a new Kirk Cousins, who in my opinion is the type of quarterback that just doesn't come around very often, it's going to be more rough seasons for the Green and White. And with recruiting going as it is... (sorry, I couldn't resist.)

And make no mistake: this game is important to us Michigan fans. Anyone who tells you that it's not is clearly pulling your leg. Is it as important to us as it is to Michigan State? Not really. We don't obsess about it, but we do revel in it.

See you guys next year.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Michigan Improves to 4-2 after Shutout Win against Illinois

Most people who watched the Michigan-Illinois game were probably shocked. If they were Illinois fans, they couldn't believe the utter ineptitude that has gripped their program since the firing of Ron Zook. If they were Michigan fans, they couldn't believe the suffocating defensive effort.

It was a cold, rainy afternoon on October 13, Michigan's homecoming, as the Wolverines took the field against the Fighting Illini in a series that has made Michigan fans nervous in the past. There was that 65-63 triple overtime "thriller" in the final year of the Rodriguez era that was more an indictment of his porous defense than a display of how exciting college football could be. We've come a long way.

The atrocious weather made some believe that this would be a defensive battle all around, that neither Michigan nor Illinois would be able to get many points. As it turned out, only one team was really affected by the weather.

It wasn't Michigan.

I have a hard time believing that Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse would have made a tangible difference in the game. He could have helped the offense put together one or two drives that may or may not have resulted in scores, but the game was decided early. The Illini could not do anything on either side of the ball. Dropped passes and poor tackling ruled the day, and Michigan ran right over them just as they had done to Purdue.

Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan had a career day, bringing praise from popular Michigan blogs such as MGoBlog and Maize n' Brew. Ryan was also recently listed as the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. You can see highlights of the Michigan-Illinois game here.

Illinois fans must be in a stupor at this point. They called for the firing of Ron Zook after the 2011 season, which started optimistically with six straight wins and breaking into the Top 25 rankings, ended with six straight losses, and they got their wish. Despite having totaled the same record as the previous year, Zook was unceremoniously fired. His team still won the bowl game, the first time Illinois has ever won back to back bowls in school history.

The athletic director for the Illini, Mike Thomas, went out and realized that no one was interested in Illinois, not with so many other programs in coaching transitions during the offseason. So he called up Tim Beckman, your 2011 MAC coach du-jour, and offered him the job. A huge upgrade over Ron Zook? Not really.

Beckman has quickly become one of the least likeable coaches in the Big Ten. He overdid the enthusiasm at Big Ten Media Days to the point where other programs were laughing at him, not with him. He sent his staff to stand outside the dorm rooms of Penn State football players following the NCAA's sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. And just two weeks ago, Beckman got caught chewing tobacco during a nationally televised football game, which is an NCAA rule violation.

Of course, the biggest crime for any college football coach is losing, not chewing, and that's exactly what Beckman has done. Against even medium opponents, his teams have gotten blown out. Despite the talent of projected first round draft picks like Michael Buchanan (a product of Ron Zook recruiting and coaching, by the way), Beckman's defense has failed miserably to meet any of their expectations.

When Mike Thomas hired Beckman, he and every Illinois fan hoped that Beckman would at least match Zook's winning record from the past two years. Instead, the Illini have gotten worse, much worse. That became brutally apparent to the one remaining Illinois football blog after the Michigan game Saturday:

Less than two years ago, we scored 63 points at Michigan. With Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback. How could we fall that far in 24 months? Yes, Michigan’s defense has improved tenfold over RichRod’s 2010 defense. But from 63 points to zero? How is that even possible?

The blog, titled "A Lion Eye," is the last Illinois outlet available, ever since Illinois writers from SB Nation's "Hail to the Orange" jumped ship shortly after Beckman's Penn State debacle, which likely brought harassment of the authors from people looking for an explanation of such unethical behavior. (That's what happens when you have an unlikeable coach who does unlikeable things in his first year.)

This was an important win for Michigan. I wrote an op-ed on the SB nation Michigan blog, "Maize n' Brew," where I cited how critical it was to take care of business against Illinois. Michigan's homecoming game against the Illini was the first of three tests in the month of October that could determine if the Wolverines can make the trip to Indianapolis. They have passed the first test.

The next one is against Michigan State. The Spartans are suffering an identity crisis right now like some of their Big Ten brethren. Consider this: Michigan State whooped Central Michigan 41-7 in week two, Iowa lost to Central Michigan 32-31, and Michigan State just lost to Iowa 19-16. Is Michigan State worse than Iowa, or were the Spartans possibly looking ahead to their trip to Ann Arbor? I'm going to go with the latter.

Michigan State has been terrible against Ohio State, Indiana, and Iowa, and are now 1-2 in the Big Ten, when everyone expected them to be conference contenders. Some Michigan fans have started to believe that the Spartans will be similarly terrible against the Maize and Blue. I don't believe it for a second. Dantonio is obsessed with beating Michigan, as are the Spartans. As much as I would like to believe that Michigan State is just plain bad this year, it's far more likely that their obsession with the in-state rival has come back to bite them.

The Wolverines shouldn't underestimate the Spartans when they come to Ann Arbor this Saturday. The memories of the last four years should be fresh in their minds. This is still a key divisional matchup, and rest assured, it should not be shocking if Michigan State plays their best game of the entire year. Even in their worst years, the Spartans have always pushed a little harder when they played Michigan. For the last four years, the Wolverines have come to the fight and were not prepared.

Let's hope this time they are.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Denard, Wolverines Stomp on Purdue, 44-13

Michigan made excellent use of their bye week as they came out healthy, motivated, and prepared to face a Purdue team that many expected (and still expect) to be the favorite for the Big Ten Leaders Division. Despite the disappointing and disheartening loss to Notre Dame two weeks ago, Michigan dispelled the negativity and proceeded to stomp on Purdue's throat, winning 44-13.

The Wolverines ran the ball a net 51 times for over 300 yards, and Denard Robinson only threw the ball 16 times, completing 8 attempts, but accumulating 105 yards in true Denard fashion. He was calm, collected, and made good decisions.

He also had the help of great receiver play from Devin Gardner, Devin Funchess, and Jeremy Gallon. Roy Roundtree even got a few catches in here--much to the dismay of Purdue fans. (Roundree had originally committed to Purdue before switching to Michigan.) Denard's performance allowed him to break the career rushing record for any quarterback in Big Ten history:

Robinson led the offensive attack with 235 yards on the ground to complement his 105 yards and one score through the air. With his effort on the ground, he set the Big Ten career quarterback rushing record with 3,905 yards, eclipsing the previous mark set by Indiana's Antwaan Randle El (3,895 yards, 1998-01).

You can watch highlights of the game here.

If there was one specific area that was lacking in Michigan's offensive play, it was the running game of Fitzgerald Toussaint, who ran over Purdue in 2011. Toussaint seemed hesitant whenever he got the ball and just didn't look like he trusted the offensive line.

The "stutter-step" that Toussaint is known for started to look like a negative feature when there were holes the offensive line gave him to run through, he sees a defender get a little bit around guard Patrick Omameh (although he is still blocked), and Toussaint bounces laterally with nowhere to go until three Purdue linebackers are in his face. Most of the rushing threat came from Denard, and eventually Thomas Rawls, who only ran over Purdue and scored an easy touchdown in garbage time, when the game was already decided.

The defense was also up to par, holding Purdue to 213 yards of offense and only 13 points, most of which were field goals. There is some debate about whether this was largely due to Michigan's more aggressive and more sound defensive performance, or the questionable quarterback play of Purdue's Caleb TerBush, who went 16 for 25 and threw what became a crippling interception that put Michigan up 21-0 in the first half.

Looking to improve from his horrible showing against Notre Dame, Denard threw no interceptions. The sole turnover given up from Michigan came on a botched hand-off to Vincent Smith, who in my opinion didn't fully secure the ball. However, with that being the only blemish in what was otherwise a fantastic game for Michigan in all three phases of the game, it's hard not to be happy with the Wolverines and optimistic about the future.

Brad over at Maize n' Blue Nation felt pretty good about Denard's performance in particular:

A 50% passing percentage for 100 yds and change with 1 TD and ZERO interceptions is fine with me. If we could get that sort of passing output from Shoelace each week, then I'd be thrilled. Of course adding 235 yards on the ground doesn't hurt either.

And the folks at Maize n' Brew were likewise pleased that Michigan came out strong and erased many doubts:

I predicted a close one, an ugly one, one that we would probably win but would not be memorable in any way. Of course, I was wrong, and I am very happy about that. Michigan dispensed the Boilers with ease, and everyone did exactly what they were supposed to do. Borges called Denard's number with regularity, Denard did what he does against teams not named Alabama, and the defense shut down a dysfunctional and limited offense.

I, too, was nervous entering this game. With all the talk from Northwestern, Purdue, and Minnesota fans that 2012 is their best opportunity to win the Big Ten with Ohio State and Penn State ineligible, Michigan and Michigan State sputtering through their non-conference schedules, and Wisconsin (who was once the perpetually presumed favorite) struggling to be what they once were, I was maybe starting to think that they were right.

As it turns out, while they may have been more successful in the non-conference, all those teams have since lost in the conference. Minnesota got whooped by Iowa, Northwestern blew a two-touchdown, fourth-quarter lead to give Penn State the victory, and Purdue just got their tails kicked by a few proud Michigan Wolverines. Suddenly it doesn't look like there was any reason to get so discouraged.

I am still concerned, however, about Michigan's chances of getting to Indianapolis. If they prepare for each game, they fully have the chance to do that, with the Big Ten being as weak as it is right now. However, as we have seen from the likes of Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, and even Nebraska (who lost to Ohio State depressingly 63-38), a few slip-ups can have disastrous results.

Michigan will have to play every game like they are the underdog and like they have something to prove. That's what they did against Purdue and it worked: with the sting of the Notre Dame loss still fully in their minds, the Wolverines came to West Lafayette with the intention to prove to themselves and everyone that they were contenders for the conference title. Running the table seems like a vain possibility, but if Michigan can be undefeated by the time they go to Columbus, they'll have secured the bid for Indianapolis.

That starts with taking care of business against Illinois, Michigan's homecoming game. The Illini are inconsistent and struggling as new coach Tim Beckman is trying to find something that can work and stick. Michigan State is an absolute must-win for Brady Hoke. The Spartans may have had their confidence shaken by the Buckeyes, but you can bet that no mistake that they made this season will show up when they come to Ann Arbor, where the Spartans attempt more than anywhere else to play a perfect game. And Nebraska, the away game that most pegged as a sure Michigan loss, is not invincible.

After that, Michigan plays Minnesota, Northwestern, Iowa, and the hated Buckeyes to close out their November stretch--a rare instance where the month of October (Illinois, MSU, Nebraska) is tougher than November (except for the last game). If Michigan can successfully survive through the grinder of October, there won't be many doubters left.