February 27, 2010
Proud programs on hard times.
I could almost cut and paste last year's "Road to Recovery" entry on Michigan in this space, with only a few name changes to separate the '09 Wolverines' epic collapse from the '08 edition. I'd also have to add an extra dash of disappointment for the more recent descent into the depths: Unlike the obviously doomed '08 team, last year's Wolverines opened up 4-0, demolished outmanned teams Michigan is traditionally supposed to demolish, beat Notre Dame, climbed into the top 25 by the start of October and looked for all the world like a January bowl team -- in other words, like Michigan has always looked.
But after seven consecutive Big Ten losses, including a sixth straight humiliation at the hands of hated Ohio State to close the season, we're right back where we started, trying to figure out what to make of an immovable juggernaut that suddenly can't buy a win, a break from the NCAA or a reprieve for a beleaguered head coach on the cusp of being bounced from one of the most coveted seats in his profession.
What went wrong. The short answer, after September, is everything. But certainly the defense was the most disappointing, particularly against the run -- not including sacks, the Wolverines allowed 200-yard games on the ground on a near-weekly basis, to the likes of Eastern Michigan, Indiana and Illinois as well as Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State; they were easily the worst run defense in the Big Ten in conference games. Pass-happier offenses from Notre Dame (336 yards, 3 TDs) and Purdue (367 yards, 2 TD) had their run of the Wolverine secondary, as did the more conservative attacks from Iowa (284 yards, 2 TD), Penn State (230 yards, 4 TD) and Wisconsin (240 yards, 4 TD). The only Big Ten offenses that failed to score at least 30 points were Michigan State (26, in overtime) and Ohio State (21), and it's safe to assume the Buckeyes could have gotten there easily if the Michigan offense had given them any reason to think they needed to make the effort.
Things might have come out a little better if the Wolverines hadn't managed to come out worse than the '08 team in turnover margin, the one area coming into the season that had to improve because it couldn't get any worse. Somehow, it did: Michigan forced all of 16 turnovers, one of the worst numbers in the nation, and finished dead last in the conference again with minus-12 ratio for the season. In their biggest games, against eventual top-10 finishers Iowa, Penn State and Ohio State, the Wolverines were minus-four in turnover margin in all three.
What went at least moderately right. The offense averaged an eyelash shy of 30 points per game, and elfin freshman quarterback Tate Forcier was still a budding star as late as mid-October before a series of (predictable, given his size) injuries contributed to his struggles during the Big Ten death spiral. When healthy, Forcier was the ultimate "moxie" guy, entertainingly leading the team out of late fourth-quarter holes to beat Notre Dame and Indiana and to force overtime at Michigan State. (He might have had an opportunity for another comeback if coaches hadn't controversially held him out of the potential game-winning drive at Iowa with a gimpy shoulder and possible concussion.) In general, Forcier had terrible outings against the conference's "Big Three" defenses, Iowa, Penn State and Ohio State, but otherwise was very promising -- he put together three straight games with a pass efficiency rating above 150 against Illinois, Purdue and Wisconsin after Halloween -- proving at least that he can move the offense and put up 24-31 points per game against teams not on their way to finishing in the top 10 at year's end.
Some of the overall offensive stats (especially the solid rushing numbers) are extremely misleading thanks to box score-padding beatdowns at the expense of MAC-rifices Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan and I-AA patsy Delaware State. Other than Zoltan Mesko's punting, though, the running game was the only relative high point in that it actually resembled a nascent version of the prolific spread 'n shred attack Rich Rodriguez guided to great heights at West Virginia, a significant improvement over the chaotic morass of the worst offense in school history in 2008.
Changes, building blocks and cautious optimism. This was still a young team in '09 -- eight starters were in their first or second year in the program, including the top two quarterbacks -- but that line won't fly again: Sixteen starters this fall should be juniors or seniors, and most of the younger contributors (Forcier, Roy Roundtree, Craig Roh, Jordan Kovacs) have a full year in the lineup under their belt already as freshmen. The growing pains of the last two years should yield a more savvy team, and one far less likely to back itself into corners with an ungodly number of turnovers.
This is also still one of the most talented teams in the country on paper. Michigan's recruiting classes have finished in the top 20 nationally according to Rivals each of the last five years, often in the top 10 and always among the top two or three in the Big Ten; this roster is not composed of cast-offs and misfits. If that's not enough to expect a leap back into conference title contention based on talent alone (the distribution of that talent combined with old-fashioned attrition has severely limited the effects of those highly-ranked hauls), it's more than enough to expect the end of losing streaks to middling Big Ten brethren Michigan State, Illinois and Purdue. With UConn, UMass and Bowling Green outside the conference and Indiana still on the Big Ten rotation, Michigan's athleticism alone should be worth at least six wins. That's also been the case the last two, disastrous years, of course, but the odds of significant improvement (and now a tenable quarterback situation) remain in the Wolverines' favor.
Target date for reacquisition of mojo. If by "mojo" you mean "a permanent slot in the top 12-15 and perpetual Big Ten title contention," the realistic answer is probably 2012, at the absolute earliest, and that depends largely on either Forcier's emergence as a steady starter or hyped incoming freshman Devin Gardner's fast rise to stardom in his place, to say nothing of filling in the gaps in the smoking crater of a secondary. If you mean "enough for Rich Rodriguez to keep his job," there is no patience for those questions to work themselves out; it's 2010 or never. The Wolverines need seven regular season wins to ward off the inevitable mob clamoring for Rodriguez's head, which probably means breaking even in Big Ten play, which means winning more conference games this season (four) than the 2008-09 teams won in the last two combined (three).
That's a dramatically lowered bar relative to anything Michigan has considered a reasonable standard in 40 years. At this point, though, beggars can't be choosers: Every energy this fall has to go to getting back above .500, finding something to hang a helmet on and setting higher goals from there.