Michigan traveled to Champaign, Ill. on Halloween looking to become bowl eligible, but instead came away with its second straight 25-point loss.
After building a 13-7 halftime lead, Michigan took the opening drive of the second half down to the Illinois 1-yard line. But four straight runs were unable to crack the end zone and Illinois took captured the momentum, and the game, scoring 31 unanswered points en route to a 38-13 victory.
Michigan looked like a kid that was trick-or-treating house-to-house, filling his bag of candy but then got beat up by the kid down the street and his bag of candy stolen.
For the second week in a row, Michigan looked uninspired and somewhat lost – far more so than a team should nine games into the season.
In the wake of the loss, and looking ahead to the final three games of the season, there are some questions that need to be answered.
Please note that I am still confident in Rich Rodriguez, and I’m not at all calling for his head after less than two seasons. I think he needs to be given time to build his team. I do have some questions, however.
1. Why can’t the defense stop the spread option?
This was a huge problem under Lloyd Carr. His defenses could defend the standard pro-style offense with the pocket-passing quarterback just fine, but when facing mobile quarterbacks, they looked lost.
Troy Smith, Vince Young, Dennis Dixon, and Appalachian State’s Armanti Edwards are still giving Michigan fans nightmares.
Much of the reason Michigan athletic director Bill Martin went out and got Rich Rodriguez two years ago was to change the stagnant culture of Michigan football.
The four and five loss seasons were getting old. The slow defense that broke down every time it faced a faster offense needed a change.
So why are we still having trouble defending it?
Make no mistake about it; this defense is dangerously thin. Only 58 percent of the defensive commitments from the past five years are still on the team. Fifty-eight percent!
That’s certainly not a recipe for success.
Twenty defensive commitments are no longer on the team due to numerous factors: graduation (four), leaving early for the NFL (one), leaving the team (13), and not qualifying (two).
Until Rodriguez is able to bring in a couple more classes, this defense should continue to struggle, simply because of lack of depth.
But depth aside, why did the defense struggle so much to defend Darryl Clark last week and Juice Williams this week when it goes up against a similar offense in practice every week?
Rodriguez is the father of the spread-option offense, so he should know how to defend it.
Today, it wasn’t just a mistake here and there; the defense looked completely lost out there. Every time Williams ran a zone read, the same play that is the staple of the Michigan offense, everybody crashed down on the same guy, which usually tended to be the one without the ball.
Illinois had seven rushes of 20 yards or more, three of them going for touchdowns.
I have to believe that this will improve over time when Rodriguez gets more defensive recruits and more speed into the system, but it’s frustrating that it hasn’t improved at all.
2. Why wasn’t Brandon Minor on the field for the goal line set at the beginning of the third quarter?
Minor is the bigger power back, while Carlos Brown is a bit quicker. Yet it was Brown who got the carries on first, second, and third down from inside the one-yard line.
Minor came in and got the carry on fourth down, and was stopped just short of the goal line.
I realize he still has a nagging ankle injury, but if he was healthy enough to come in on fourth down, why wasn’t he in there for the first three plays?
3. Why didn’t Rodriguez use a time out just before the half?
Michigan had just kicked a field goal to take a 13-7 lead, and then forced an Illinois three-and-out. Williams was sacked at the Illinois 24-yard line with about a minute left, but instead of using his second timeout, Rodriguez let the clock run before Illinois called timeout with 27 seconds left.
A good punt and no return left Michigan with the ball at its own 11, and it subsequently took a knee, seemingly happy to go into the locker room with a six point lead.
But why not take a time out with a minute left and give your offense another chance to score before the half?
I would have expected Carr to take the conservative route and take it into the half, but not Rodriguez, especially with two timeouts left.
The only reason I can think of is that he wasn’t comfortable with punt return-man Junior Hemingway’s ability to catch the ball.
Turning it over in that situation would have given Illinois a great chance to take the lead and the momentum into the locker room.
But that’s a chance he should have taken, in my opinion.
4. Why has the team quit the past two weeks?
In Michigan’s first two losses, against Michigan State and Iowa, the team fought for the whole 60 minutes. It came back to force overtime against Michigan State and came within two of undefeated Iowa.
But last week against Penn State and this week against Illinois, it seemed to just give up once things started going bad.
The only defensive player that played every down 100 percent was senior defensive end Brandon Graham, and that’s going to make him a great NFL player. He finished with four tackles (one-and-a-half for loss), a sack, and a blocked punt.
The rest of the defense didn’t play inspired at all.
Maybe it’s the fact that the offense puts it in bad situations with turnovers, but when you’re playing college football, it’s your job to give it your all every time. And that effort was not there in the second half.
5. Is Rodriguez too hard on the players and coaches?
One of the common scenes on the sidelines this season and last has been Rodriguez chewing out his players and coaches after a mistake.
Now, I know many people will say that they should grow up and take it, but I seriously have to wonder if his demeanor has an impact on how the team plays.
I don’t have any data on it, but it seems that whenever Rodriguez goes off on a player, it has a negative effect on his play.
I’m all for coaches yelling; it’s what they do. But for a young team like this, that is still trying to grow and learn the system, maybe yelling in their face isn’t the right way to get your point across.
It’s something to think about, but I’m pretty sure Rodriguez isn’t going to change his coaching style, so the players are going to need to adjust.
So where does Michigan go from here?
It needs one more win to be bowl eligible, and two to be assured of a bowl game.
Next week, Michigan hosts Purdue, which is probably the last winnable game left on the schedule if the team continues to play like this.
The following week, Michigan travels to Wisconsin to play a team that just throttled Purdue 37-0. That game will be as tough as any game Michigan has played all season.
Finally, Michigan hosts Ohio State in a game that very well could salvage the season. However, Ohio State’s quarterback, Terrelle Pryor, is the same type of mobile quarterback that Michigan can’t defend.
The team needs to get its confidence back so it can finish the season strong and get back to a bowl game. Otherwise, it’s going to be another long off-season filled with second-guessing and more anti-Rodriguez sentiment.