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Monday, January 02, 2006

Many... most... hell, all Michigan fans have skipped right to the wailing and gnashing of teeth thing in the immediate aftermath of the Merry Alamo Farce and the Season of Infinite Pain, calling for everyone from Carr to Herrmann to Mike Gittleson to the kittens to me(!) to be fired. The indictment against me reasonably stated that Michigan has lost five or more games every year since this blog's inception--food for thought.

However, I think before heads roll (at least in the Kids in the Hall "I am crushing you" sense) we should review the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that brought us to this low point in our collective sporting lives. Herein and forthwith, the 2005 Enemies List.

An unprecedented, mind-flaying bouquet of injuries. Michigan got about 1.5 fully healthy games between Jake Long and Mike Hart, two guys who were running neck-and-neck with Lamarr Woodley for the title of best player on the team in the preseason. Long's backup, Mike Kolodziej, woke up tingly and unable to move one day, forcing natural guard Rueben Riley out to right tackle, where he attempted to ward off edge rushers with two broken thumbs. Leo Henige, already limping around on knees from hell, broke his leg. Adam Kraus missed the last few games with another knee issue. Tight end Tim Massaquoi broke his hand and then missed most of the last two games of the year with... yet another knee issue.

And that's just the offensive line. Steve Breaston wasn't right early in the season, missing the MSU game. On defense, exactly one defensive end (Pierre Woods) avoided missing a chunk of the season. A cheap chop block knocked Rondell Biggs out for a number of weeks. Tim Jamison had a sprained shoulder that lingered several games into the year. Lamarr Woodley's mysterious arm issue caused him to miss two games and sit out critical portions of the OSU game. Jeremy Van Alstyne missed the first half of the season. In the secondary, Ryan Mundy went out for the year with a nerve injury. Both Willis Barringer and Brandent Englemon missed large portions of the season simultaneously. WLB Chris Graham contracted a case of Rueben Riley's broken thumbs. Morgan Trent missed the Alamo Bowl.

Uh, yeah, I think that had something to do with it.

Stupid coaching decisions. The Minnesota game was lost when Jim Herrmann called a stupid defense that left inconsistent linebacker Prescott Burgess lined up as a defensive end opposite mammoth Minnesota TE Matt Spaeth. Burgess lost contain and an irrelevant blitz from Jamar Adams from the other side of the field drew Brandon Harrison to the center of the field, leaving no one between Gary Russel and Michigan's demise.

Time and again this year Michigan found itself leading narrowly heading into the final minutes of the game with the ball in hand, changed its playcalling in an attempt to grind out the clock with a terrible running game, and punted with an opportunity to strangle the game. Six times this year Michigan failed to close out a game it was leading in the fourth--often by two scores. Overtime against Iowa and a miraculous last second against PSU meant that Michigan managed to pull out two of those blown leads (and you can't really blame the coaching decisions for the result of the Alamo Farce) , but... six times! I think that's fair evidence that Michigan's "sit back and let 'em screw up" strategy is totally out of place in today's offense-oriented college football world, especially when teams must score or die and use fourth down to do so. The days of dominant Michigan defense are over; Carr has not adapted his strategy.

Henne failing to live up to expectations. More balls whizzed two yards in front of open receivers than I care to remember. His mindblowing interception to Tom Zbikowski was a nail in Michigan's early season coffin; his inability to hit Jason Avant on a corner route plagued Michigan all year; his haircut did remain hilarious. At times he played well, often right before or after doing something Stooge-worthy, but he was nowhere near the All Big Ten performer many expected him to be. It's no exaggeration to say that he was the main reason Michigan lost to Wisconsin.

(DISCLAIMER: Obviously Henne has a world of potential and is only a sophomore. If he ends up throwing straight and reading coverages better, look out and stuff.)

Totally useless guard play. Henne's performance came with a ready-built excuse. Maybe if I was paying as much attention last year as I did this year I would have regarded the loss of David Baas much more ominously. Without Baas, fifth year seniors Leo Henige and Matt Lentz were exposed as intimidating-looking revolving doors. The Notre Dame game featured a bevy of blitzes up the middle that turned Henne into a jittery incompletion machine. Fourth and goal from the one against Wisconsin was stuffed when Henige was shoved backwards into a pulling Lentz, leaving Kevin Grady tasked with plowing through two guys at the point of attack. Ohio State... well, our longest run of the day was 8 yards from Alijah Bradley on a "who is that guy" play.

Hart's absence hurt the run game, certainly, but even when we had him it was clear that he was working with scraps. Anything that would prompt this assessment after the MSU game...
More concerning is the run blocking, which was awful. Yes, awful. It was possibly the worst run blocking coupled with a 200 yard day from the accused team's running back in the history of NCAA football.
...has to be deeply broken, right? The surprising performance against PSU stands as an aberration in a season of massive disappointment.

Run defense charitably described as "nonexistent." Last year the run defense was, despite appearances, very good if you replace Mundy and Shazor with non-ciphers. Running against Michigan was a generally futile exercise in 2004 aside from an 80 yard touchdown run per game. This year, not so much. Not so any. If you remove games against hapless IU and EMU and combine the three-headed MSU backfield into one person, Michigan allowed eight of ten tailbacks it opposed to exceed 100 yards. Only Northwestern's Tyrell Sutton and OSU's Antonio Pittman failed to beat that milestone, and in Sutton's case it was more due to a lack of trying: Northwestern totalled only 17 rushing attempts the entire game. (Yes, Northwestern got 110 yards on those carries.)

What happened?
  • Gabe Watson underperformed. We has still good, but he wasn't an All American.
  • ...and thus he couldn't make up for Pat Massey. If only Massey played as purty as he talked. He's 6'8", and there's a reason you've never heard of a 6'8" DT before: every play someone gets under this hypothetical giant's pads and drives him five yards backwards. Massey's only contribution this year was pursuing on screens.
  • Chris Graham was a nonfactor. The official winner of the 2005 Grady Brooks Memorial "Practice Field Superstar Award," Graham took bad angles, couldn't shed blocks, and totally disappeared from the UFR reviews after the NIU game except for brief cameos generally accompanied by something like "AAAARGH CONTAIN CONTAIN WHY GOD WHY GOD."
  • Prescott Burgess was the Henne of the defense last year, alternating good plays that get NFL scouts clinking glasses of baby blood together with moments even his momma can't condone. His inconsistency combined with Graham's poor play to make bounceouts a guaranteed 15 yards.
  • Grant Mason couldn't replace Marlin Jackson's run support, though to be fair it's hard to support the run when you're lined up ten yards off the line and moving backwards at the snap. The hidden damage of Michigan's Cowardly Lion act in the secondary this year was in all those outside runs that the linebackers actually strung out properly but went for seven or eight yards anyway because the corner was late.
This is the magic formula for suck.

Mind-bendingly awful refereeing. No one likes it when the referees come in for a bitchslapping, but it must be said. The Alamo Bowl was a total screwjob, and the lack of review on the first-down sneak against Notre Dame before the fumble was costly. Michigan did receive a slight edge from the blind mice against Iowa (as discussed here), but the ludicrous calls almost evened out in that one and the resulting edge (two bad PI calls) did not result in Michigan points. In total, Michigan was totally robbed of one game and was badly hurt in another, to say nothing of the "fumble" against Michigan State.

(Penn State fans should reserve their bitching for JoePa, who got two extra seconds put on the clock with three minutes left in the game just like Lloyd.)

So what does it all mean?

Just like every other fanbase in the world, Michigan fans (at least those who bother to post on message boards) have fractured into two equally insane groups. The RCMB would call them "Demand Excellencers" and "Sunshine Blowers"; EDSBS broke them down into the St. Fandrew and Master Shake genres.. The Master Shakes declare that Michigan was OMG 3 plays from 4-7 and no bowl this year; the terribly-scarce St. Fandrews (hi deanwerner!) declare that Michigan was OMG 3 plays from 10-2 this year. Well... yeah, that's what happens when you play 7 games that are decided with under a minute left to play. Unless you are a gigantic lucksack like the 2002 Buckeyes, you lose half and win half. If you were to take this Michigan team and have them play this season over and over again against the same teams, what would their final record be? Probably around 7-5. This was a crappy, frustrating football team that deserved most of what it got.

But not all of it. Said outrageous fortune descended heavily upon Lloyd Carr this year, playing up every weakness of his (a tendency to reward hardworking, useless players, terrible late game management skillz, a charming inability to phony his way through press conferences after getting jacked by referees) and minimizing the positives. The plagues of injuries and simian referees were at least a standard deviation above the norm.

I don't see how the coaches can be blamed for the offense's implosion. Chad Henne's lack of progress was crippling in early losses against Notre Dame, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. That combined with the injuries wracking the running game to grind the OMG Michigan Scoring Machine to a halt. We were left with a team incapable of running or passing due in large part to the players Michigan were forced to put on the field. In response Terry Malone went WR-screen mad, which kept Michigan afloat until late in the year when teams had scouted the screens and our general inability to do anything else. There's much complaining about the lack of creativity displayed by Terry Malone, et al, but what exactly are you supposed to do when your guards can't block, your two best players are out, and every clever route you pop someone open on sees Henne wing it yards wide of the helplessly open receiver? I still like Malone. I like the obvious change in Lloyd's fourth-and-short strategy. I like the adjustments that attempted to take advantage of our leetle fast guys at WR without putting undue stress on Henne's erratic accuracy. I don't see a way that Michigan's offense could have been anything other than crappy given the execution of the players in all phases of the game. You have to be able to do something right to set up the other phase of the game--Michigan could consistently do neither, thus the bupkis.

The defense, on the other hand... I think my judgment may be excessively biased by my anger at the killer play against Minnesota. That one incident and its cosmic stupidity color every thought that crosses my synapses about the defense. How could you put yourself in that position? Minnesota is trying to kill the clock, has some redshirt freshman that Glen Mason is clearly terrified of, and is in third and eleven... let's blitz a safety! Let's make the entire defense on the strong side of the formation Prescott Burgess and Grant Mason! Look at all the exclamation points!!! I'm pissed!!!

Seriously, I am. I think that play is representative of two major failings in the Michigan coaching staff. They don't understand math, and they expect players to play like they should, not like they do. In two bullets:
  • Math: dude. Seriously. Punting on fourth and four against Penn State when a first down kills the game. Continually playing soft on end of game drives. And deciding that you were going to leave one area of the field extremely vulnerable to a big play when it's the only way you can lose in regulation. All these fly in the face of simple probability... the punt most obviously. What are the chances of making a fourth and four? Well, third and four is about 45%. You make it, you win. Thus unless your punt almost halves your opponent's chance to score, it's the wrong move. But the coaches think "our defense should hold them" and then when they don't they get to sit at press conferences, pissed off and confused that anyone would even ask about the strategy they employed.
  • Playing like you "should": The infamous summary for this attitude is "the expectation is for the position," which is nice to say and dumbtarded in practice. You can expect Prescott Burgess to perform well when you line him up at defensive end opposing two separate giant, angry, runblocky Minnesota hulksters all you want, but that doesn't mean an inconsistent linebacker who is allergic to the idea of containment is actually going to perform well. Said another way, "the expectation is for the position" is "we put players in a position to fail because gameplanning is hard and stuff." Michigan's attitude that we will out-athlete you without any of that thinkin' stuff is getting anachronistic right quick. The offense does seem to adjust when faced with personnel deficiencies, but the defense defies them to matter... until they do. The flip side of this is a refusal to take advantage of a player's abilities if they don't fit into the scheme of the defense. (A side note: the unique, creative, and effective deployment of a strange player like Shawn Crable is the exact antithesis of this attitude, so "the expectation is for the position" has exceptions, especially when you're a 6'6" lighting bolt with chicken legs and there isn't a position for you to be expected at.)
It's been pointed out here and elsewhere that Michigan hasn't ceded less than 28 points in a bowl game since magical 1997, and I wonder if that has something to do with Michigan's bullheadedness lending itself to being scouted into the ground when teams are given ample time to prepare.