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Stadium and Main: October 2008

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Enough Already

I haven’t posted much this season, which is probably a good thing. But after reading and hearing some of the things that were said after the Toledo loss, I had to chime in with my two cents: Everybody chill out.

If you’re nervous about the Rodriguez regime, frustrated by our lackluster performance thus far, or simply mad that we lost to a MAC team, please take some time to read this. Then bookmark it and re-read it after our next loss. Then go outside and enjoy some nice fall weather.

Relax. We are going to be fine.

The Bowl Streak

Michigan’s nation-leading consecutive bowl game streak will likely end this season, and that stinks. But it isn’t the worst thing in the world. Let me list some teams that recently missed bowl games, and the years they have missed them (since 1990):

USC – 2000, 1999, 1997, 1996, and 1991
Ohio State – 1999
Oklahoma – 1998, 1997, 1996, and 1995
Georgia – 1996, 1994, 1993, and 1990
Alabama – 2003, 2002, 2000, 1997, and 1995
LSU – 1999, 1998, 1994, 1993, 1992, 1991, and 1990
Texas – 1997, 1993, 1992, and 1991
Penn State – 2004, 2003, 2001, and 2000

A few obvious observations:

(a) The most dominant program in college football this decade, USC, missed a bowl game in 2000 and missed four in the 1990s.
(b) Penn State, currently ranked 3rd in the country, has missed four bowl games since 2000. They’re probably the most Jekyll/Hyde college team this decade, but their program didn’t dissolve just because they stunk for a few years and they have a decent shot at the BCS Championship Game this season. And in case you forgot: during one of those down years, PSU lost to… Toledo. At home.
(c) LSU missed seven bowl games in the 1990s but has won 2 BCS National Championships since. They essentially stunk for a decade, but do you think that’s bothering them now?
(d) Georgia’s crappy run in the mid-90s didn’t hurt them in the late-90s and early-00s, when they recruited what would be the foundation of a Sugar Bowl and SEC Championship team (2002).

On a related note: Isn’t it clear what happened with a majority of these programs? Most of them underachieved for a few years, hired a good coach, and rose back to their rightful place amongst college football’s elite. USC, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas, and LSU – these are teams that didn’t do much in the 1990s (or even the 1980s, with the exception of the Sooners), yet they’re arguably the five most dominant programs of this decade. Each has at least one national championship to its name since 2000. I’m not saying that Michigan is guaranteed a place amongst this “current elite” in the coming years – I’m saying that the path we’re following has resulted in abundant success for a few of our traditional peers, and there’s no reason why Michigan can’t achieve the same results.

Every single college football power has suffered through a tough time. We are the most consistent and most successful program to do so, and we’re the last of the bunch. So maybe that’s why it stings so much. But I’m confident that Michigan will be back on top sooner rather than later, because I think Rich Rodriguez is a great coach and I know he’s a relentless recruiter. If you think he stinks and you don’t like him for one reason or another, then fine, keep tearing your hair out about the bowl streak, the loss to a MAC team, and all of these other fairly meaningless statistics (or “traditions”) that you think are so important. In the grand scheme of things, I assure you they aren’t. Alabama fans aren’t pining over that missed bowl game in 2003, and Alabama recruits probably don’t even know it happened. They’re all too busy smiling about the fact that they're program is ready to blow up (in a good way).

First Year at a New School: Who Am I?

Let’s play a game! Some names and numbers to ponder:

- I went 6-6 in my first year, including a loss to Utah. I was ridiculed as a poor hire. Here’s what they said about me at first: "After setting out to hire a proven winner but being turned down or ignored by high-profile candidates, [Team X] finally settled on [Coach Y] as its new football coach … despite strong objections from boosters, alumni and fans." Here’s what happened shortly thereafter: I went 2-5 in my first 7 games (ouch!), then 67-7 over my next 74 (whoa!), winning two national titles and bringing my team back to prominence. Who am I? I am Pete Carroll, head coach of the USC Trojans.

- I went 2-9 and 2-10 in my first two seasons, trying to adapt a traditional pro-style offense to a spread that incorporates Rich Rodriguez’s zone read scheme. Contrary to popular belief, my current quarterback was not a dual-threat QB in high school, but he is very athletic. He struggled mightily his freshman year, somehow “managing” to complete less than 40%(!) of his passes. In my third season, we beat Ohio State and went to the Rose Bowl. Now my experienced QB understands the offense and is racking up 300 yards a game like it’s no big deal, including passing for more than 450 yards twice this season (already). My team is currently 10th in the nation in total offense. My offense stunk at first, but now it gives my team a chance to win every game. Who am I? I am Ron Zook, head coach of the Illinois Fighting Illini.

- I went 5-6 in my first year at one of the biggest powers in college football history. In my second year, I went 8-4, and in my third I won a national championship. In the 10 seasons following my sub-par first year, I went 95-24-2. Who am I? I am Lou Holtz, former Notre Dame head coach.

- I went 1-11 in my first year, trying to convert a zone power running game into a spread offense. I even lost to Florida Atlantic and North Dakota State, but I stayed the course and recruited players to fit my system. I kept teaching the system to my fairly young team, and it paid off. This season, my second, I’m 6-1 and my team is going to a bowl game. Who am I? I am Tim Brewster, head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

- I went 7-6 in my first year and lost to Louisana-Monroe (at home, obvs). My team is currently ranked 2nd in the country. Rita Rodriguez knows who I am. Do you? I am Nick Saban, head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide

- I went 3-8 in my first year, struggling to install the spread offense. I managed 9 wins in year 2, which started a run of six straight bowl games, including two BCS bowl wins. Nobody knew anything about me early on in this decade, but I dominated the Big East and now everybody seems to be copying my offense. Rita Rodriguez also knows who I am. I am Rich Rodriguez, former head coach of the West Virginia Mountaineers and current head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.

Do I really need to hammer home the points here? I don’t think so. Some might argue that while the coaches of the “traditional power” teams listed above (Carroll, Holtz, and Saban) didn’t have much success their first year, (a) none of them looked as bad as Michigan’s team does now, and (b) many of them (not to mention coaches like Stoops and Tressel, who weren’t part of the crew above) made HUGE improvements in their second years. These folks would say, and rightfully so, that such an improvement seems unlikely at Michigan in 2009. But there is a big difference between those coaches' situations and Rich Rodriguez’s. Carroll inherited Heisman-type talent at USC and let Norm Chow put the finishing touches on an experienced Carson Palmer. Tressel inherited great linemen and a roster designed to execute his philosophy. Stoops had an efficient JUCO QB (Josh Heupel) who was perfect for his system (and a Heisman runner-up). And so on. Rodriguez has virtually nothing, especially on offense. So let’s talk about that…

Why Does the Offense Stink?

You probably already know this stuff, but please forward this along to Outraged 52-Year-Old Guy in Section 20 (or 3, or 39, or wherever), because he apparently can’t understand why we’re not undefeated. After all, we’re Michigan! Right?! Anyway, on to why the offense is horrible:

Lack of experience

As mentioned multiple times by many others, we have one senior on the entire three-deep (TE Mike Massey). We lost more offensive talent than anybody in the country. Take a look at the list:

QB Chad Henne
QB Ryan Mallett
OL Jake Long
OL Justin Boren
OL Alex Mitchell
OL Adam Kraus
WR Mario Manningham
WR Adrian Arrington
RB Mike Hart

That’s a lot of talent. Other players can and will replace them, but not yet. Not when they’re currently freshmen and sophomores in a new offensive system.

Lack of dual-threat QB (or even a semi-productive QB)

News flash: There was a reason that the first person Rich Rodriguez called after accepting the Michigan job was Terrelle Pryor. Actually, there were 4 reasons: (1) Ryan Mallett, (2) Steven Threet, (3) Nick Sheridan, and (4) David Cone. Rodriguez knew that he had nobody on the Michigan roster that could run the spread offense. [And if you fault Rich for not “adapting his offense to his talent,” please see the “Some Words from the Wise” section below] Yes, Mallett had a strong arm – but how quickly people forget his fumble and attitude problems. Yes, Threet was an Elite 11 QB – but he’s only a redshirt freshman playing in a brand new system, and maybe he (like Mallett) was a bit overrated in high school? Rounding out the QB group were a walk-on who’s probably on the team only because his dad used to coach here (Sheridan) and a lanky, immobile passer (Cone).

Rodriguez knew he needed help… immediately. With only about 6 weeks left before Signing Day, he did the best he could. QB recruit B.J. Daniels, who ended up at South Florida, was apparently headed to Michigan when it became clear that something fishy was going on with his recruitment (and since USF coach is such a jerk, I’ll state the obvious: various folks claimed that he wanted to get P.A.I.D.). So when Rodriguez had to drop Daniels and was unable to lure another QB (such as Alabama commit Star Jackson or Minnesota commit MarQueis Gray) at the 11th hour, Justin Feagin was the only one Michigan was able to snag. And here’s a telling quote from Feagin’s profile: “[Feagin] starts at quarterback and safety but projects as a safety in college.” So that’s where we stand. Unfortunately for Rich, and for Michigan fans, help won’t be arriving until 2009. But to hold the poor QB play against Rodriguez this season is ridiculous. We just don’t have a productive QB on our roster right now, let alone a productive spread-option QB.

Lack of quality OL

Brian’s got this one.

Injuries, Suspensions, and other Junk

Nobody likes these types of excuses, but this season they’re quite valid. Each of these offensive players has missed at least one game:

OL Cory Zirbel (most experienced OL, out for the season before a game was played)
OL Perry Dorrestein (current starter)
OL Mark Ortmann (current starter)
RB Brandon Minor (projected starter, key backup)
RB Carlos Brown (key backup)
RB Kevin Grady (1-game suspension, key backup)
WR Greg Mathews (current starter)
WR Daryl Stonum (1-game suspension, current starter)
WR Junior Hemingway (one-time starter, currently out with Mono)
Slot WR Terrence Robinson (projected contributor, hasn’t played in a game due to injury)
Slot WR Martavious Odoms (current starter, sorely missed in the Toledo loss)

Also recall that TE Carson Butler (general boneheadedness) and QB Steven Threet (Entire 2nd Half vs. Toledo, part of 2nd Half at Notre Dame) have missed various parts of games this year. We’ve been flat-out unlucky: We have virtually no experience on offense, and some key players that we can’t do without have already missed a significant amount of time.

Some Words from the Wise

Brian gets it right:
No, this offense would not be any better if it was lining up under center every play and running isos. Banish this from your mind. When you have freshmen at quarterback and most of the skill positions and a line with something like 6 even quasi-reasonable options and the lone senior on the two-deep is the third-string tight end, you are going to be awful no matter what offensive philosophy you adopt. There are like two and a half good players on offense.

And what would that buy Michigan? A Motor City Bowl invite? I'd like to keep the bowl streak—not going to happen—but if the choice is between a crappy December bowl and some increased chance Michigan is great in 2010, I'll take the latter.
Jake gets it right:
Informed football fans understand why Michigan is struggling. You cannot have success running the spread if you have a QB who can’t run or throw. Truth be told, you can’t have success running any offense with a QB like that but it is especially true with the spread. Michigan is bad for one reason and that’s because of the QB play. If RR had merely an average spread QB, or even just an accurate passer, Michigan would likely be 4-2. Instead, Michigan is 2-4 and looks even worse than that. There are many things this team could improve on but there is only one thing making this team bad. I’ll once again cite my favorite example when discussing Michigan and the spread: Georgia Tech. Paul Johnson literally hit the ground running at Georgia Tech with his triple option attack. With far less talent than Michigan, he had the Yellow Jackets wreckin’ house at a rate of 412 total yards per game. Why? Because he inherited two above average dual-threat QBs. That’s it. That’s the difference. Michigan is a disaster because of one position. Need evidence? Both of Georgia Tech’s QB’s were out this past weekend against Gardner-Webb. Gardner-Webb is a I-AA team and a mediocre I-AA team at that. Without its two dual-threat QBs—and with a Threet-esque QB—Georgia Tech won 10-7 and put up 199 total yards. Sound familiar? Michigan isn’t perfect, but it is literally one position away from being a 10-win bowl team. Don’t forget that when you’re making your “Fire RR” signs.
And he doesn’t stop there:
Remember when Bill Martin hired RR? There was a huge group of fans who were still complaining about not getting Les Miles. I believe those are the people who are already giving up on Rodriguez. Only an ignorant fan would already give up on Rodriguez six games into his career. I think the people who supported RR from the beginning are still behind him. It’s just too bad that we can’t expel moronic fans who are jumping ship six games into RR’s career. They will come back and cheer just like the rest of us with no consequences. There was an idiot who called into Sam Webb’s show on Monday morning who said, “If Michigan would’ve hired Brady Hoke, we’d be undefeated.” There wasn’t a person in the universe who wanted Michigan to hire Brady Hoke (Hoke relatives not included). In fact, Hoke represented the worst possible scenario. People were having nightmares about the possibility of Hoke running the program. I can’t believe there is a guy out there, living and breathing, who could actually bring himself to mutter the sentence, “Martin blew it by not hiring Brady Hoke.”
Finally, Stewart Mandel gets it right:
Stewart, as an extremely concerned Michigan fan I have one simple question: Rich Rodriquez = Bill Callahan?
-- Jamie DeFrank, Washington D.C.

Wow -- you're really going there already? I figured Michigan fans would be panicking this week, but Callahan was arguably the most disastrous coaching hire this decade. You don't happen to be the kind of person who runs to the doctor's office at the first sight of a pimple?

I'm guessing you're making the parallel because Callahan, like Rodriguez, tried to overhaul a previously successful program's offensive system. And, like Callahan, he's an outsider. But at the end of the day, Callahan didn't fail at Nebraska because of his offense. On the contrary, the Huskers were quite powerful offensively by the end of his tenure. He failed because he was an NFL-bred coach trying to run a college program like an NFL franchise and, in the process, he managed to alienate almost everyone connected to that program.

Rodriguez, on the other hand, is a proven college coach. If you haven't noticed, West Virginia hasn't been the same without him. Tommy Bowden just resigned in part because he could never replicate the success he had with Rodriguez as his offensive coordinator. The guy knows what he's doing; unfortunately, his players can't yet say the same.
In Closing

Allow me to repeat what I said a few weeks ago, because it applied then, it applies now, and it will apply 6 months from now (so re-read it, if and when necessary):
What’s very frustrating for me is that Charlie Weis went 3-9 in his third year, and there was virtually no talk of firing him. But I guarantee you that if Rodriguez misses a bowl game this season, his first year, you will hear a LOT more talk about how he’s not the right guy for the job, etc. Never mind the fact that we don’t have a proper QB for his system yet – the most important part of Michigan’s team from here on out. Additionally, Rodriguez is working with about 5 of “his own” recruits. In his 3rd year, Weis was working with, what, 50(?) of his own recruits (two full recruiting classes, plus a few guys he pulled in after Willingham was fired). Pretty much all of his offensive players in year 3 fit his offensive system (pro style). And if you want to say that Weis struggled because his 3rd-year team was loaded with inexperienced players... umm, have you looked at Michigan’s roster lately? The entire THREE-deep on offense has just one senior (TE Mike Massey), and we’re starting freshmen at QB, RB, OL, and WR!

I’m already annoyed at the media because I can see this coming from a mile away. Rich Rodriguez is a very good coach. We need to give him time, and we need to stop any crap from the media before it starts.
But “we” didn’t preemptively stop the crap from the media, did we? No, “we” embraced it. And by “we” I’m talking about Outraged 52-Year-Old Guy in Section 20, who I mentioned earlier. I swear, Michigan must have the most self-abusive fan base in the country. Show that guy a hint of negativity, a bit of adversity, or an “unacceptable” result, and he’ll run with it until he’s blue in the face and our coach is showing up on “hot seat” lists across the internet.

So here’s my humble plea to those folks: Stop complaining. Stop booing. Stop playing the “what if” game. Stop using the word “fire” (unless you’re talking about the element). Michigan is young, inexperienced, and lacking talent at many key positions. But we are going to be very good in a few years. In the meantime, for the sake of the rest of us and for the betterment of Michigan football, please deal with yourselves. Go Blue!

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