February 12, 2009
Great programs on hard times.
There's something very grim and daunting about any assessment of what happened to Michigan in 2008: Cymbals crash, bassoons rumble, storm clouds gather, the room goes dark, and ... and ...
What Went Wrong. We don't have time for a detailed accounting here, but as shocking as the Wolverines' descent was, most of the problems were pretty apparent before the season even began. A few of us pointed them out in describing the worst-case scenario: "They are staggeringly green on offense. They don’t know who the quarterback will be. They don’t know who the playmakers will be. They may not know how to run the plays." That was written last July, and it was true, true, true and true, to the letter. They went into the Ohio State game in late November still wondering about all of those things.
So, yeah, as 10 new starters -- almost half of them freshmen -- would suggest, it was the worst Michigan offense in the long history of Michigan offenses. Rich Rodriguez totally lacked the personnel to do the West Virginia spread 'n shred thing that landed him the richest contract in the Big Ten, but that's not necessarily on the scheme or Rod's failure to adapt: The young quarterbacks were inadequate for any philosophy, and got worse as the season went on, completing fewer than half their passes in four of the last five games. When I wrote last month that Kevin Craft was the worst starting quarterback in the nation, esteemed Michigander Brian Cook sent me a note that said only, "Nick Sheridan." It's true: Sheridan's numbers were worse than Craft's -- if Nick didn't throw as many picks, it's only because he was too inaccurate for the DBs to get a hand on the ball, either.
The line couldn't block, the running backs couldn't hold onto the ball and the results were worse than anyone could have possibly predicted: Last in the Big Ten in passing, pass efficiency, total and scoring offense, and then turnover margin, too, for good measure. The Wolverines topped 30 points once, in a 48-42 loss to Purdue, and scored just 10 in the October loss to Toledo that might surpass the '07 Appalachian State debacle as the worst in recent memory.
What Went At Least Moderately Right. Well, Zoltan Mesko led the Big Ten in punting ...
Actually, compared to other recent Michigan defenses, the senior-laden defensive line was pretty good against the run: Overall, it allowed fewer yards per carry than the Wolverine fronts in 2004, 2005 and 2007, and end Brandon Graham was the only UM player (other than Mesko) to wind up on the year-end all-Big Ten team.
Of course, they also allowed 230-plus yards apiece on the ground to Penn State, Purdue and Ohio State and couldn't stop weekly assaults by opposing quarterbacks on the secondary. But even if you mark the front as mediocre, in context, mediocrity counts as a kind of success.
Changes, Building Blocks and Cautious Optimism. The issue defensively is that three of that front four are graduating, leaving a frighteningly young line and a mostly veteran but middling back seven whose best hope lies in the restorative powers of ... uh, Greg Robinson. GERG can't be remotely as inept in a coordinator role as he was as head coach at Syracuse, but Graham is the only unambiguous positive at his disposal; the D could be better at limiting big plays (more than 100 plays allowed last year of at least 15 yards) but about a wash overall.
A wash is not tenable on offense; Rich Rodriguez will be fired if his baby bottoms out again. Statistically, that's not going to happen, but only in the what-else-can-go-wrong sense. Nothing else can go wrong, ergo the offense will improve. There's too much raw talent for it not to.
As far as what's going to go right, though, specifically, there's running back Brandon Minor, who had a strong finish, and not much else aside from the hardening callouses from last year's blisters. Steven Threet, now a sophomore, has a chance to be a viable quarterback, but no one will blink if incoming Tate Forcier winds up as the guy in the shotgun. Either way, the offensive project is a long, long-term issue; last year's unit was in so far over its head, the goal in '09 is just treading water.
Target Date For Reacqusition of Mojo. Definitely not 2009, when the highest goals will be just earning a bowl bid -- any bowl bid -- and giving Ohio State a run for its money. The immediate future beyond this fall depends largely on Forcier's development: If he wins the job and seems to be a viable four-year starter, there's a chance the 2010 edition will look vaguely Michigan-like in terms of competing for the Big Ten title and a January bowl game, etc. If not, it's back to the drawing board for another quarterback recruit who can learn on the ropes and pull it together in 2011, and so on until there's a signal caller in town that looks better than an Alamo Bowl-worthy placeholder.