Monday, October 26, 2009

I guess I should have seen that coming

At the beginning of the year, I predicted Michigan would finish 7-5. I adjusted that to 8-4 after the Notre Dame game, but even as the team's weaknesses became more and more apparent, my heart forced me to stay optimistic and hold onto those ridiculous fantasies that involved UM beating Penn State, getting on a roll, knocking off Ohio State and finishing 10-2.

I wrote off some of the inconsistency as growing pains and felt pretty good about the only two losses -- both of which came on the road in games Michigan had a chance to win in the final minute -- but in hindsight, I should have foreseen the possibility of a disaster like Saturday's 35-10 loss to Penn State. The offense is explosive but is still prone to a ton of mistakes, and the defense just lacks talent at too many positions (especially in the secondary) and is in its first year under coordinator Greg Robinson. That's not exactly a recipe for a national title.

That said, my predictions for Michigan on Saturday really weren't that far off (although the QBs definitely played like freshmen); Penn State was just WAY better than I anticipated, and it looked as though they'd been prepping for weeks for Michigan's defense. They exploited UM's biggest weak spot -- the outside linebackers' and safeties' complete ineptitude in coverage -- early and often, running essentially the same play (known as the "smash" concept) for the first three touchdowns and several other big gains before finally going against that tendency and mixing in a post pattern that got Graham Zug his third score of the day. I never thought I'd say this, but Galen Hall's gameplan was a thing of beauty. Daryll Clark looked like the guy who was Big Ten offensive player of the year in 2008, and while Michigan's coverage has been spotty all season, it's clear now that Clark's horrific outing against Iowa had a lot more to do with the awesomeness of the Hawkeyes' pass defense than anything else.

Michigan ran the ball with decent success (even without excellent center David Molk, who tore his ACL on the third freakin' play after returning from a broken foot), but the passing game was an all-out disaster. Don't put too much blame on Tate Forcier, though: I counted at least four costly drops (and that was before the fourth quarter, when I basically stopped paying attention), and pass protection was a problem all day. Denard Robinson also threw a terrible interception when Michigan was down by three in the second quarter and then fumbled deep in UM territory in the third, and between those two turnovers, the shoddy defense and a safety on a bad snap (which came shortly after Molk departed), it went from a close game to a laugher in a hurry.

It was a painful reminder of 2008, but I wouldn't really call it a regression; it was more of a verification that a lot of last year's youth-related problems -- fumbles, dropped passes, lack of depth at certain spots, inexperience, miscommunication, etc. -- still exist. Unfortunately, they all cropped in one game against the best team Michigan has played all year, and the results weren't pretty.

The UM fan base has had one of its typical overreactions (as all fan bases do), but I hope people realize that a 5-3 team -- one that's literally two plays away from being 7-1 and will likely be 7-3 after playing Illinois and Purdue -- is still a vast improvement from a year ago. We all got suckered into the idea that Penn State was overrated and Michigan was on the brink of greatness, but that doesn't mean we need to ignore the results on the field and react like we would if those things were actually true.

I still expect Michigan to win the next two games (although I'm a little less certain of that than I was a month ago), and I expect them to lose at Wisconsin and at home against Ohio State (although I'm actually more optimistic about the OSU game than I was a month ago). The result would be the 7-5 record I predicted in August, which is a little bit of a comedown from earlier in the year but is perfectly acceptable in the grand scheme of things. It's just not realistic to go from 3-9 to 10-2, and Penn State drilled that into my head with authoritah.

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