Monday, October 5, 2009

Sore Shoulders? No Wonder.

Michigan State (2-3) held off a late overtime rally by Michigan (4-1) in East Lansing on Saturday.

It never should have come down to that, but it did.

This is because MSU had beaten Michigan in virtually ever facet of the football game for the first 55 minutes of play. It was only in the final 5 minutes, trailing the Spartans 6-20, that Michigan freshman quarterback Tate Forcier decided to walk up to the line of scrimmage, put the entire game and Wolverine football team on his back and try to pull off another adventure of the improbable. The Wolverine offensive coaching staff could only look on in disbelief.

Michigan approached the game with confidence. And why not? They were unbeaten at 4-0, a top of the Big Ten standings, and had seemingly redeemed themselves from the 3-9 record of their hellish season past. Meanwhile Michigan State was reeling at 1-3 after three consecutive defeats.

In the game Michigan first tried to match strength for strength with the Spartans, but simply could not move the ball on the ground against the MSU’s 4-3 defense. The Wolverines managed only 28 yards rushing on the day.

With just 5 minutes left in the game, it looked like Rich Rodriguez and offensive coordinator Calvin Magee had finally experienced an epiphany. It turned out that indeed Michigan State’s defensive secondary wasn't that good after all. Just like those crazy team scouting reports and hours of game film had confirmed and demonstrated all along! And so it was that with 4:47 remaining young Mr. Forcier, in obvious and considerable pain from his injured shoulder, launched a rocket pass to sophomore wide receiver Darryl Stonum covering 59 yards for the score.

Spartan Stadium shocked. The sun starting to peek out while clouds still hovered.

Michigan 13, MSU 20.

Forcier wasn’t done yet. The Michigan defense, which had been ground all afternoon into fine powder by the surprising running (and less surprising) passing prowess of Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousins, forced a rare three-and-out possession. Now with 2:53 on the clock and down by 7 points, Forcier went to work again for Michigan, this time from the Wolverines’ own 7 yards line.

Of the 93 yards that Michigan would traverse in 2 minutes and 51 seconds, Forcier was responsible for 39 on the ground and 39 through the air. The Spartans would of course do their share to help out and donate another 15 yards on a penalty. On 3rd and 8 with 00:08 showing on the clock, Forcier connected on a 9 yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree with 00:02 to play.

Tie Game 20-20 and on to overtime!

And that's where our illustrious fairy-tale ends.

The Spartans ran in a 24 yard score during the last overtime possession to win the game by 6 points, 26-20, sending Rodriguez, Forcier and the entire Michigan football team back on the road, wondering only what could have been.

As of the end of last week it looked like the Michigan State Spartans’ football season had been caught in a maelstrom and was about to be summarily smashed against the rocks. An emotional contest against hated cross-state rival Michigan was exactly what Michigan State needed to pull up their collective bootstraps and perhaps right their wayward ship once again. I distinctly remember some overly creative Detroit sports journalist using the phrase: “Time will tell” in a recent column headline. OK, Time will tell.

As for Michigan, they must collect themselves and heal injuries. The coaching staff must determine what went wrong with the vaunted read spread option running game that had done fairly well the previous 4 games, and then make corrective adjustments.

Defensively, as bad as it looked Saturday against MSU at times and the week before against Indiana (and by the way, it looked godawful most of the first 3 quarters on Saturday), Greg Robinson’s defense is actually finding ways to force field goals and keep the young Wolverines in football games.

For the first two games, the offense carried the Michigan team to victory with a balanced running and passing attack and by simply outscoring the opposition. Despite the loss on Saturday and the surrender of 400+ offensive yards again, the Michigan defense may actually be finally finding it’s bearings. The wheels aren’t coming off the Michigan offense, but clearly the injury to center David Molk is causing major disruption in the rhythm of the Wolverine rushing attack. It’s doubtful that this can be corrected completely with another week of practice.

Your shoulders are sore? Well, it's Because We've Been Riding Them Since Game 2!

As outstanding and heroic as Tate Forcier has been so far this year, there are seven games left and it’s time for him to settle down as the starter. Forcier is simply waiting way too long to get rid of the football. This could be on the UM receivers not getting open, the lack of decent pass protection or the lack of a safety valve receiver on certain plays. It could also be Forcier’s inexperience.

In my view, however, the “freshman mistake” comments need to end right here and right now. Forcier has already started 5 collegiate football games this year. This practice of holding on to the ball until the last moment is something Forcier must recognize as a serious risk and try to minimize it. Yet, the long pauses and Fran Tarkenton impressions keep coming week after week. The scrambling around and throwing off the back foot is going to create turnovers, possibly cause injuries, and likely place Michigan’s already porous defense in the worst of possible circumstances.

But what happens? With an beautiful TD throw here and a shocking first down play there, it's amazing to me how all of this recklessness is so quickly forgotten. And at what cost? If no one is open, take off and get some yards, or just throw it away. In the game of college football, you can still be the game hero by not being the hero.

While Forcier can certainly do more to help himself become more patient, the Michigan seniors need to step up and remind Forcier that they intend to contribute as well. And if they do this, they have to actually deliver! Brandon Minor, Carlos Brown, Greg Mathews, Mark Ortmann, David Mooseman must show some burst over the next 7 games.

It is not right to have the success of this football season ride on Forcier's busted shoulders alone.

On the Wolverines’ horizon lie a tough, 12th-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes team that resembles Michigan State in many ways, except perhaps that they’re much better offensively than predicted in the off-season, with arguably the biggest and best offensive line in the entire Midwest. Iowa’s defense has played remarkably well this year against run-oriented offenses including spread formation teams like Iowa State, Arizona and Penn State. They are known for causing turnovers, particularly interceptions. If Michigan's defense can't control a quarterback like Kirk Cousins of Michigan State, they're going to have an "interesting" time against Iowa's Ricky Stanzi.

Expectations for a Young Team
As a last comment following the Wolverines' loss to Michigan State this weekend, I will say this: Michigan’s football team is remarkably young. It’s easy see that this football team possesses significant talent and promise for the future. Only 2 players will graduate from the starting lineup on defense this fall: DE Brandon Graham and LB Stevie Brown. On offense, Michigan will lose 5 players to graduation: TB Brandon Minor, TB Carlos Brown, WR Greg Mathews, OG David Moosman and OT Mark Ortmann.

When Michigan was unbeaten at 4-0, as excited as everyone was, many failed to recognize that two of the wins were close, non-decisive wins (ND, Indiana). The other two victories were rather expected, decisive wins (WMU and EMU). Saturday a close loss has been added to Michigan's experience. This Wolverine football team is going to continue to grow and surprise people. It would be a mistake, for example, for teams like Penn State, Wisconsin or Ohio State to discount Michigan this year. The high expectations that came with 4-0 now need to be appropriately adjusted following Saturday’s performance.

The Michigan offense and defense are not where they need to be to win a Big Ten title. Rodriguez’s read spread option offense is not running on all cylinders. The defense is giving up way too many big plays.

So what exactly can Michigan fans expect over the next seven games?

1. A good number of explosive plays and scores by the Michigan offense.

2. A high number of explosive plays and scores given up by the Michigan defense.

3. Close, barn-burner, cardiac-arrest-inducing UM victories.

4. Excruciatingly-close UM defeats.

5. More moments of brilliance which will foreshadow a bright future.


Anonymous said...

Roundtree caught the TD with 2 seconds left, not Odoms.

Don said...

Agree with pretty much everything, but I've got news for you: Tate will still be a freshman entering Ohio State week, and he's going to be making freshman mistakes all year. The only thing we can reasonably hope is that they decrease in quantity and seriousness as the season progresses. Expecting them to disappear simply because he's played 5 games is silly.

I hope you're right about the cardiac nature of the games ahead, because that implies we're in the game. I will be shocked if we're competitive with Iowa and OSU, and surprised if we are with PSU and Wisky. I think the chances of 5-7 are greater than 8-4.

Anonymous said...

Several factual errors in this post. Iowa lost at home to Northwestern last year for example.

Markus said...

Anon No. 2,
Thank you for the correction. I overlooked Northwestern's victory in Iowa City last fall (2008) and have removed it from my post. Let me know of any other factual errors. Thank you.

Rasmus said...

I hope you're right about the defense. We will need them to play well against Iowa.

I think it's safe to say the offense will play better next week. But they're also playing against an even better defense. So it's hard to know how that equation works out. I think 20 on offense is about right. Improved play against a better opponent yields the same result.

Can the defense hold Iowa under 20? Unlikely, but maybe with some special-teams points or via turnovers, it's close enough to have a chance to win at the end.

I think Don meant 7-5, not 5-7 (which would entail not winning another Big Ten game). But I still don't agree that is more likely than 8-4. I think in one of the 4 games that he mentions, the offense goes nuts and wins a shootout with Molk back. Right now, I'd say PSU is the most likely victim. There will be more days like last Saturday, but the offense has already shown they can keep pace -- it will happen at least once more.

Anonymous said...

As the saying goes, "the style makes the fight" and the match up makes the game. Big, slow and powerful vs. small and fast on the field. No dropped passes or turn overs, better blocking, tackling and "punting" should keep Michigan in the game. However, with this team we're still getting to know them so it's difficult to be difinitive.

Don said...

Nope, I meant 5-7. Until Molk gets back, this OL is going to struggle to open up holes and keep pressure off of Tate. Our defense is mediocre at best, with only one real difference-maker who unfortunately gets doubled if not tripled most of the time. Our tackling is starting to resemble last year's and our LB's appear to not have a clue half the time where the ball is. Any defense that has as much trouble with Indiana at home as we did is going to struggle all season long in the conference. I think we're giving up even more yards per game at this point than we were last year.

I agree 5-7 is pessimistic, but 8-4 assumes we're beating three other conference teams. Unless the quality of our play on both sides improves considerably, I'm skeptical that's going to happen. Putting Purdue and Illinois in the gimme category is unwarranted. PU took ND to the limit and played Oregon closely until the very end, and the Illinois game is on the road.