November 03, 2009
Players, coaches and teams with the most at stake on Saturday.
To some extent, Rich Rodriguez has been on the spot ever since he took over from Lloyd Carr at Michigan, and even more so since Nov. 1, 2008, the day his first Michigan team lost at lowly Purdue, 48-42, clinching the program's first bowl-less season in 33 years and its first losing campaign in forty. A certain segment of the Wolverine fan base has never quite forgiven "RichRod" for that; though the prevailing wisdom from the very beginning has been that Rodriguez would need time to both re-invent a stodgy offense and make over a stodgy attitude that had pervaded the program, setting a new record for losses in a single season was never going to be anything other than an incredibly bitter pill to swallow for the nation's all-time winningest program.
So to say that Rodriguez is on the spot this weekend -- when the Wolverines will be hosting Purdue, incidentally -- is almost a given. But there was a time when it didn't have to be like this. A month ago, the Wolverines were 4-0, ranked in all the mainstream polls, and showing every indication of reversing the dramatic collapse of 2008; a small minority of pundits was starting to murmur about a potential sleeper run at a Big Ten title, and Ohio State fans, of all people, were casting jealous glances in the direction of the Wolverines and their true-freshman quarterback, Tate Forcier.
Since Michigan's 36-33 win over Indiana on the last Saturday in September, though -- a victory whose thin margin perhaps portended some of the team's ensuing struggles -- the Wolverines have fallen from 4-0 to 5-4, their one win coming against a horrifically overmatched I-AA squad that shouldn't have been on the schedule to begin with. The first couple losses were at least respectable -- an overtime road loss to hungry, desperate Michigan State, a two-point road loss to Iowa, which sits at No. 4 in the current BCS standings -- but there's no lipstick for the pig that is the Wolverines' most recent defeat, a 38-13 collapse against an Illinois team that had shown every indication of having packed it in for the season.
What changed from that 4-0 start to, well, everything that's happened since? It's possible that the dropoff has something to do with Forcier, more specifically a shoulder injury he sustained in the Indiana win. Before the injury, he was completing 62 percent of his passes with a 7:2 TD:INT ratio; in the four games since against opponents that aren't Delaware State, he's completing fewer than 50 percent of his passes, has thrown for only two touchdowns (against three picks) and his pass efficiency rating has dropped by more than 40 points.
But the bulk of the blame falls on the other side of the ball: The Wolverine defense has never quite untangled itself from the issues that come with a shift in scheme under first-year coordinator Greg Robinson (who you may remember from such collapses as "Syracuse, 2005-08") and an untenably young, thin secondary. Even in the early wins over Notre Dame and Indiana, the defense allowed 34 and 33 points, respectively, giving the impression that Michigan was just papering over a lousy D by managing to win some thrilling shootouts. Once the defenses got tougher and Forcier was no longer 100 percent, all of a sudden Big Blue wasn't so impressive anymore.
And even those statistics fail utterly to explain the loss to Illinois, who had yet to notch a win against a I-A team in 2009 before facing Michigan. The Illini were dead last in the Big Ten in passing offense, total defense, and nearly every other major statistical category -- yet they unloaded an even 500 total yards on the Wolverines (including 377 rushing) while holding the conference's top rushing attack to barely half its season average. Even Rodriguez's most impassioned supporters confessed that the loss was reminiscent of the 2008 catastrophe in many respects; if Michigan can't beat Illinois, it will have trouble beating anyone remaining on their schedule this season.
That includes Purdue, which, for the record, had little trouble dispatching Illinois by 10 points last month. The Boilermakers did have an ugly five-game losing streak early in the season (though four of those losses came by a total of 18 points, including a much better effort in Eugene than the one USC turned in Saturday night), and they did suffer a 37-0 demolition at Wisconsin just last week. But they also boast the Big Ten's second most productive player in terms of total offense in Joey Elliott, a veteran quarterback poised to pick apart Michigan's secondary every bit as easily as he did Ohio State's in Purdue's upset over the Buckeyes three weeks ago.
During the depths of Michigan's 3-9 misery last season, a common refrain from Rich Rodriguez's supporters was that "RichRod" did have a three-win season in his first year at West Virginia but went 9-4 the following year and never looked back. That's all well and good, but if Rodriguez is to affect a similar turnaround in Ann Arbor, he can't lose another game this season -- and at the rate the Wolverines appear to be regressing, they're not even a lock to make a bowl. If Michigan does beat Purdue and earn its way back into bowl eligibility, that'd certainly be a big step forward from last year, though still not as big a step as Michigan fans thought they were going to see a month ago; if the Wolverines lose to Purdue with 6-2 Wisconsin and 7-2 Ohio State on deck, the chance of a bowl bid all but disappears, and Rodriguez's reputation for rehabilitation has taken another major hit.
Rodriguez was never really on the "hot seat" last year because the pain of a major rebuilding season was generally considered a reasonable price to pay for the wholesale changes he promised. But if he becomes the man responsible for Big Blue's only two losing seasons since LBJ was president, fans and administrators alike may start wondering whether that deal was really worth it.