For the past two and a half seasons, I have tried to remain calm and serve as a voice of reason for the current state of Michigan football. Week after week I have advocated patience for Rich Rodriguez and his coaching staff. I’ve been one of a diminishing populous all season, but the performance on Saturday has pushed my propensity to move on from mild to warm.
It wasn’t simply that Michigan lost to Penn State, but the matter in which Michigan was manhandled by a team starting a walk-on quarterback and missing almost half its starting lineup that pushed me closer to the “Jim Harbaugh, come on down!” side.
For the first half of the game, Michigan looked as if it spent the bye week shopping for Halloween costumes rather than preparing for Penn State. Two weeks of practice midway through the season usually allows a team to correct some flaws and spend some extra time gameplanning for the next opponent.
But Michigan came out with a terrible play call on the third play of the game (more on that in a minute) and proceeded to let Penn State double its season points average.
Rodriguez vowed after the loss to Iowa two weeks ago that he would spend some more time with the defense and last week he said there would be some personnel changes. Replacing linebacker Obi Ezeh with Kenny Demens worked well against Iowa, but when you’re replacing starters with freshmen, it’s not always going to work out for the better. This week, he moved safety Cam Gordon to linebacker and filled his spot with true freshman Ray Vinopal.
Vinopal made some mistakes, but the defense as a whole turned in its worst performance of the season, making Penn State’s version of Nick Sheridan look like Tom Brady. Quarterback Matt McGloin, a former walk-on, in his first career start, looked comfortable and confident all game long, picking the Michigan defense apart both short and deep. When he needed to convert a third down, he put the ball on the money with a five-yard out. When he threw deep, his receivers were open enough to make it just a long hand-off.
Michigan stopped the Penn State offense once on five drives in the first half as the Nittany Lions rolled up a 28-10 lead and only once more in the second half, right after Rodriguez stormed into the defensive huddle and laid into the defense.
The offense didn’t look sharp early on either, and it was the third play of the game that began the frustration for Michigan fans. On third-and-two from the Michigan 36, Rodriguez ran Vincent Smith up the middle out of the i-formation. He was stopped for no gain and Michigan punted, allowing Penn State to set the tone of the game. It was the sixth time this season that Smith has gotten the carry on third-and-short and Michigan has converted just three of them.
For the rest of the game, Robinson took the carries on third-and-short and converted all three, two of which he ran for eight yards or more.
|Michigan rushes on 3rd-and-short (3 yards or less)
|3rd-and-1 = 3 yards||3rd-and-1 = 2 yards||3rd-and-1 = 2 yards*|
|3rd-and-1 = 3 yards||3rd-and-1 = -2 yards||3rd-and-1 = 2 yards*|
|3rd-and-1 = 3 yards||3rd-and-1 = 3 yards||3rd-and-1 = 7 yards#|
|3rd-and-2 = 4 yards||3rd-and-1 = 1 yard||3rd-and-3 = 0 yards^|
|3rd-and-2 = 6 yards||3rd-and-1 = 0 yards|
|3rd-and-1 = 0 yards||3rd-and-2 = 0 yards|
|3rd-and-2 = 16 yards|
|3rd-and-2 = 47 yards|
|3rd-and-1 = 27 yards|
|3rd-and-3 = 0 yards|
|3rd-and-3 = 6 yards|
|3rd-and-3 = -4 yards|
|3rd-and-1 = 2 yards|
|3rd-and-1 = 3 yards|
|3rd-and-1 = 9 yards|
|3rd-and-1 = 8 yards|
|13/16 for 133 yards||3/6 for 4 yards||3/4 for 11 yards|
|8.31 YPC||0.67 YPC||2.75 YPC|
|*Michael Shaw, #Stephen Hopkins, ^Teric Jones|
Why Rodriguez and offensive coordinator Calvin Magee continue to run the 5’6″ 180-pound Smith up the middle on short-yardage plays instead of Robinson or freshman beefcake Stephen Hopkins is anybody’s guess, but for a team that needs its offense to play perfectly in order to win, that’s certainly not a play call the coaches should keep making.
On third-and-short situations this season, Robinson has carried the ball 16 times and converted 13 of them, averaging 8.3 yards per carry. When he lines up in the shotgun with a head start and blockers in front of him, it’s almost impossible to stop him from picking up the first down even when the defense knows it’s coming.
I really like Smith on screens and lined up in the slot, but banging him up the middle on short yardage plays is ridiculous. On six carries on third-and-three or less, he’s averaging two-thirds of a yard per carry, having converted only half of them. He’s much more suited for the open field than up the middle.
Still, the offense scored 31 points on Saturday and it would have been good enough to win if it had a halfway decent defense. So why is the defense so bad, and whose fault is it?
Misopogan’s latest diary on MGoBlog sums it up perfectly with this statement: “The point is this: we already thought the defense would be bad in May. Since then, almost half of the possible defensive contributors either transferred, got injured, or proved themselves mostly useless. We aren’t just the bottom of the Big Ten; without Martin, we’re probably in the middle of the MAC.”
Defensive tackle Mike Martin, the only NFL-caliber player on the defense right now, didn’t make it through the first series after re-injuring his ankle. Somewhere between seven and ten true or redshirt freshmen saw the field on defense. Any other season, most of them would be redshirting right now, but due to the aforementioned transfers (Justin Turner, Anthony LaLota, Vladimir Emilien), injuries (Troy Woolfolk, Brandon Herron, Mike Williams), players kicked off the team (Boubacar Cissoko), and recruits who never made it to campus (Demar Dorsey, Davion Rogers, Antonio Kinard), Rodriguez wasn’t afforded that luxury. Freshmen can succeed in college football, but only when they’re surrounded by talented upperclassmen. When they’re all you have, you’re not going to win ball games consistently. That’s not an excuse, that’s reality.
Some of that was of his own making, recruiting guys with academic problems, not putting much focus on the defense for two-plus years, etc. However, as MGoBlog pointed out last week, Lloyd Carr is at least as much to blame as Rodriguez for the current woes due to the lack of junior and senior talent currently on the roster.
After Notre Dame’s loss to Tulsa on Saturday night, my father-in-law (a Notre Dame fan) said, “Our starting quarterback was out, our starting running back was out, our starting tight end was out, a starting safety was out, and a starting nose guard was out. But you know what, at the end of the day, those are all just excuses.”
That’s certainly true in our case as well. There are a lot of excuses to be made about this team right now, but I still don’t think it’s time to give up on Rodriguez yet. While the abundance of freshman causes blown coverage, missed tackles, and loads of frustration now, it can only help for the future as these players gain experience. Look at how much Denard Robinson progressed from last season to this. If the defense was this bad with Woodley, Branch, Harris, Crable, Burgess, Warren, and Hall, then it would be time to dump Rodriguez. But no one is going to confuse the current defensive roster with the squad of 2006.
And for that reason, we have to give Rodriguez one more season. If he’s still failing to compete with the Big Ten big boys, then call up Harbaugh. He’ll still be around 14 months from now.
Eighteen of Saturday’s starters return next season and the secondary will likely get its best player, Troy Woolfolk, back for his senior season. One of the four not returning is James Rogers, a receiver-turned-corner who wouldn’t even be playing if not for Woolfolk’s injury in fall camp.
Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Ohio State are all at home next season and Minnesota and Northwestern rotate back onto the schedule in place of Wisconsin and Penn State.
You can’t get rid of Rodriguez without seeing what he can do with his players now in the system for a couple of years and a favorable schedule. That’s why I’m not all the way to the Fire DickRod hehe! side of the thermometer.
The offense has gone from 20.2 to 29.5 to 35.4 points per game since Rodriguez took over and is right on track with 10 returning starters next season and one of the top high school running backs in the nation, Demetrius Hart, on his way to Ann Arbor. Now, Rodriguez needs to turn his focus 100 percent to the defense and get it to where it needs to be. If that means firing defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, I think I’m okay with that at this point, even though he hasn’t had much to work with thus far. If Rodriguez can lure West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel to Ann Arbor, then I’d be all for it.
Under Rodriguez and Casteel, West Virginia’s defense went from 62nd in total and 109th in pass defense in 2006 to seventh in total and 14th in pass defense in 2007. Currently, Michigan ranks 106th overall and 117th in pass defense. It’s not going to make the jump that WVU made in 2007, but it will definitely be better than it is this season solely because of the experience this year’s players are gaining. If it’s even good enough to be a middle-of-the-road defense next year, that team will win a lot of games. That 2006 West Virginia team went 11-2 with such a poor defense thanks to an experienced offense with second-year starters Pat White and Steve Slaton. Denard Robinson will be a second-year starter next season and the offense will be even better than it is right now.
For all of those reasons, I still believe that this Rodriguez thing can work out. The patience is wearing thin, but it’s not broken yet.