Deace's Pieces: Keep the Faith in Michigan

While it's clear that Michigan supporters have been battered by an uncharateristic losing season in Ann Arbor, GoBlueWolverine Columnist Steve Deace believes Michigan is showing encouraging signs and the fans should keep the faith.

I should've known better...

My wife and I had planned to pay top dollar for great tickets to see the Wolverines play at the Metrodome one final time and take in the Mall of America for some Christmas shopping as well.  Minneapolis is only about three hours from our home in Iowa, so it seemed like a natural fit. 

But just as I was about to click the "submit" button at StubHub.com a couple of weeks before the 2008 season started, my instincts told me it wasn't worth it given the economy, gas prices at the time, and the sinking feeling in my gut that Michigan might not be that good this season. 

As the losses mounted this fall and my disappointment over seeing the first losing season in Ann Arbor in my lifetime reached a crescendo, I comforted myself with the small consolation that at least I didn't throw a few hundred bucks away on that Minnesota game trip. 

Well wouldn't you know that once game day arrived, the Michigan football team would shock everybody by taking the bowl-bound Gophers behind the woodshed for a 29-6 beat down that keeps the Little Brown Jug in the capable hands of Jon Falk until at least 2011.  

Oh ye of little faith. 

It's tough to describe any victory as a "big win" when you're in the midst of your first losing season since the nation was looking for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, but given the action on and off the field it's certainly safe to say this was one Rich Rodriguez desperately needed.  On the field, the Wolverines had blown three straight games they led in the second half.  As a result, off the field Rodriguez was blowing a gasket as public pressure reached the boiling point once Michigan's historic and nation-leading bowl streak officially came to an end.   

I'm not saying Rodriguez was on the hot seat for this horrific season, nor am I insinuating that he should be, given it's only his maiden voyage.  But I am saying that had the Wolverines lost again on Saturday, the official team slogan for 2008 might've been, "I've only been here for 10 months…geez."

And something tells me that wouldn't have been included in Bill Martin's winter letters to season ticket holders asking them to re-up.

A three or four win season is never acceptable at Michigan, barring a unique circumstance that simply can't be overcome.  Like an airborne outbreak of Ebola striking Washtenaw County, for instance.  Given how watered down the current era of Big Ten football appears to be, and the fact Charlie Weiss is still coaching Notre Dame, it's also inexcusable for the Wolverines to miss a bowl game.  And I don't want to hear about all the players lost to graduation/NFL and the coaching change, either, since last I checked, Martin didn't offer fans buying tickets and new Adidas Michigan gear that "transition year discount."

Nonetheless, there have been little glimpses of hope – and dare I say things to come – in an otherwise murky season.  That makes folks such as me that were ecstatic when Rodriguez was tabbed to captain the good ship Schembechler believe our excitement was justified.

Those two reasons would be the fact the team has never quit on Rodriguez and the offense has improved greatly since the start of the season.

Unless you're intimately involved with or inside a major college football program, as I have been in the past, I think you never truly understand these players and coaches are every bit as human as you and I.  I'm a video game player myself, and I certainly believe that EA Sports has greatly enhanced the football I.Q. of the average fan from an Xs and Os standpoint.  However, video games cannot factor in the human element, and you don't just sub players in and out like they're cattle in real life like you can on the PS3.  And the human element is the same at a college football program as it is at every job.  There are cliques, there's jealousy, there's selfishness, there's competition, and plenty of times guys flat-out don't like each other.

And that's true even on great teams with coaching continuity.  On a team undergoing the rough transition Michigan football is experiencing under Rodriguez, I can't even imagine how much coaching of attitude and chemistry is happening that we never see.  It's harder to get folks to buy into a new system in any industry, especially when the previous one was successful and the new regime hasn't produced results worthy of everyone buying in yet.

Yet the last two weeks, when the Wolverines had the most excuses to let it happen because their season goals were shot, the team has shown tremendous heart on the road and played four quarters of effort football.  That doesn't mean it was always crisp execution, especially on defense against Purdue, but the effort and the will to win was there.  That's a tribute to both Rodriguez and the Michigan tradition, and that bodes well for the future.  That same dogged determination matched with superior talent and experience combines for a lethal combination.

As for the offense, when describing its execution throughout the first half of the season the best thing to do is quote the late, great John McKay with the words, "I'm in favor of it."  It was, in a word, brutal.  Michigan was even struggling to execute even the most basic football plays, like the always tricky holding onto the ball while running with it. 

There were strobe lights in the pitch darkness early in the season, like the opening drive against Miami, the second quarter against Notre Dame, the second half against Wisconsin, and the first quarter against Illinois.  But the Wolverines were about as consistent as John McCain's campaign message, and had similar results to boot.

Yet it wasn't the scheme, it was the players—the offensive line and the quarterback specifically.  I like to watch the games on my TIVO and break them down as they're going on.  It was frustrating for me to watch our quarterbacks consistently make the wrong read or our running backs make the wrong cuts.  This offensive scheme is lethal when executed properly.  The plays Rodriguez wanted were often there, we just couldn't execute them.  Imagine what this will look like in the fall of 2010 when the stadium refurbishing is complete, and the Rodriguez era is finally gaining traction?

Think the Florida Gators. 

The last couple of games two things have happened to mark this improvement: Michigan has played some mediocre defenses and the tempo on offense is faster because the players are getting more accustomed to the scheme. 

Just look at Saturday.  Nick Sheridan, of all people, played the most efficient game under center we've had this season and the Wolverines piled up over 450 yards of offense.  And that was with just adequate quarterback play.  Had the Wolverines had a quarterback tailored to fit that offense, they wouldn't have settled for so many field goals and would've put up 40+ on the Gophers. 

In fact, for as bad as this defense has played this season – and I would describe their tackling throughout most of in effeminate terms – a reasonable case can be made that the other team's advantage at quarterback was the difference in all of our losses except for perhaps the one in South Bend. 

That's why each time I've been tempted to jump off the ledge, and on a couple of occasions this fall I've walked right to the edge, gazed down, and contemplated screaming "man overboard," I have to keep reminding myself of what I've just written. 

And something tells me I'm not alone.

Extra points…

If I were the Fords and I couldn't get Dave Wannstedt to come out of retirement and take over my operation, I would seriously consider hiring Brian Kelly.  His version of the spread should work well for a franchise that plays at least nine games indoors each season, and is a scheme tailor-made to take advantage of the considerable talents of Calvin Johnson.  Kelly is organized, no-nonsense, with a Bill Walsh-like offensive mind.  He's got everything it takes to be a great pro coach someday.  Plus, hiring a guy with local ties should reignite enthusiasm in the moribund franchise…

For general manager, the first hire the Fords should/will make, the Lions should look strongly at former Titans GM Floyd Reese.  He helped to build them into one of the NFL's most consistent franchises…Watching Joe Paterno "coach" from the press box in Iowa City yesterday wearing a headset with no microphone just reinforced my preseason prediction this would be his last season in Happy Valley…

I think Lane Kiffin is going to be the next coach at Washington, not Syracuse, and he'd be a great hire because he can recruit L.A.  When the Huskies have a coach that can recruit L.A., they have the tradition, fan base, and facilities to win big, as they have in the past. Another name for the Washington job is Chris Petersen at Boise State

Michigan State's Mark Dantonio would be perfect for Tennessee.  He could help them recruit talent-rich and nearby Ohio, and his toughness and discipline on and off the field is just what that rudderless ship needs.  And Dantonio would be wise to strike now while the iron is hot.  State is going to just its third January bowl game since its 1987 Big Ten championship for a reason. My guess is, though, that Tennessee will offer Mike Leach at Texas Tech a blank check before going for the stoic Dantonio…

If he loses to Alabama, look for Tommy Tuberville to be relieved of his duties at Auburn.  Tuberville is a fine coach, and a school like Clemson would be making an upgrade in terms of leadership and toughness by trading his services for Tommy Bowden's. If Tuberville is relieved of his duties, Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp is the likely replacement.  And if Tuberville is retained, Muschamp will probably be the favorite to take over at Clemson…

Kirk Ferentz, once considered a favorite to replace Lloyd Carr, just notched Iowa's first win over a top 10 team since 1990 and its first win over a top three team since 1983.  With one more win, the Hawkeyes are probably headed back to Tampa for the Outback Bowl should the Big Ten get two teams in the BCS…

Finally, in case you missed this on the message boards yesterday, you might want to check this out from the premium board: Sneak Peek at Big Ten football 2009 .


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