Monday, November 2, 2009

I hate Juice Williams

It was as bad as it looked Saturday for Michigan. The first half was fine, and it was basically what was expected coming in: Michigan controlled the line on both sides, taking a 13-7 halftime lead that could have been a little bigger if not for a couple drives that ended with short field goals rather than touchdowns. I was unconcerned.

Then, on the third third play of the third quarter, Roy Roundtree caught a 76-yard pass and was tackled at the 1-yard line. Michigan ran into the line four times and got stuffed (with two touchdown calls getting correctly overturned), Illinois went 99 yards in six plays, and that was that. The rest of the game was a blur of Michigan players getting tackled in the backfield and fumbling while Juice Williams and the Illinois running backs cruised up and down the field at will. Apparently, when it was all over, the Illini had racked up 433 total yards and 29 points after the aforementioned goal-line stand. Michigan didn't score again.

I haven't been that angry about a Michigan game since RichRod took over, for reasons that I've documented many times -- the offense is still full of freshmen and sophomores and the defense had two walk-ons starting Saturday because of an embarrassing lack of depth that's been evident for about three years. Those problems will only be solved with time. But what can I say about a 25-point loss to a 1-6 Illinois team that hadn't beaten an FBS team all year, with every loss coming by double digits? Everyone has been better than Illinois this year, and they just beat Michigan as badly as they beat Illinois State.

It was also the second year in a row Juice Williams absolutely lit up Michigan's defense. Fortunately, it will never happen again (he's a senior, so it can't). He apparently includes some sort of Jedi mind trick with his ball fakes, because every freaking play against Illinois over the last two years has involved a Michigan defender tackling someone who didn't have the ball while everyone else completely ignored the guy who did have the ball. It's hard to figure out how Illinois doesn't put up 400 rushing yards a game.

I read a comment along these lines on a message board, and it seems to pretty accurately summarize Michigan right now:
This team is really good when it's on and terrible when it's off.
Very simple but very true. The Michigan team that played Saturday was not the same one we saw against Western Michigan, Notre Dame and even Iowa. Does that mean things are going backward? Maybe, but I don't think so. There are still plenty of stretches where that team from earlier in the season shows up, and unlike last year, UM can run the ball pretty consistently against almost everybody. The most telling number I can come up with is that despite a 28-yard outing against Michigan State and the absence of starting center David Molk for most of the season, Michigan is 14th in the country in rushing, just behind Oregon and Alabama. That's pretty good.

The thing I just can't figure out is why, in each of the last two weeks, the team has completely fallen apart once things have started to turn against them. Is it coaching? Is it youth? Is it that the offense just isn't built to come from behind (pass protection has been an obvious issue all year) and the defense is terrible, which really exacerbates the bad performances? Yeah, it's probably the last one.

I think it's also evident that as the season has gone on and teams have gotten more tape of UM on both sides of the ball, the weaknesses have been exploited more and more. Blitzing off the right side (the weak side) of the line? Check. Bringing a safety up in press coverage on the slot receiver to limit bubble screens? Check. Using tight ends in the passing game and misdirection in the passing game to take advantage of the overaggressive (and usually poor) linebacker/safety play? Check. These are things that have become a regular part of opposing gameplans over the last four weeks, and Michigan doesn't yet have an answer.

Next week's game against Purdue is now crucial. A sixth win would guarantee a bowl game, and that's all most of us really hoped for at the beginning of the year. Get to the postseason, get that extra month of practice and hopefully get a momentum-building victory like Notre Dame had last year against Hawaii. The two games after Purdue -- at Wisconsin and home against Ohio State -- aren't looking very promising, so UM needs that sixth win ASAP.

There will be a lot of heat this offseason if Michigan ends up 5-7 (and 1-8 in Big Ten play), and a bowl game next year would become an absolute necessity for Rodriguez to keep his job. My concern is not whether he can reinstate Michigan as national power -- as I've said all along, his track record is too good to ignore -- but whether he'll really get the chance. If injuries and a fairly difficult schedule combine to make next season another rough one, with UM finishing 6-6 or something similar, will that be it? And if so, what's next? Bringing in another coach with a different system (non-spread, I assume) would just mean another two or three years of rebuilding with an entire roster built for the spread 'n' shred, and at that point you're risking dooming the program to a decade or more of mediocrity. If you care about seeing Michigan succeed at some point in the near future, you should NOT be calling for a coaching change right now.

Something needs to be done with the defense, though. I don't know if firing Greg Robinson is the answer, because then you're running into the same problem you'd have with the offense if you fired Rodriguez -- it's hard to do much of anything without some opportunity for development and continuity. He also has a pretty respectable track record when he's not coaching Syracuse. But even with the depleted depth at a lot of positions, there's no excuse for this defense being as bad as it is. In Big Ten play (I'm including Notre Dame here to differentiate quality competition from cupcakes), UM is giving up 32.7 points per game and has allowed no fewer than 26. That is just not good at all.

I expect some changes among the positional coaches in the offseason, specifically linebacker coach Jay Hopson. Hopson was new to the staff last year and, unlike every other coach on the staff, had no previous experience at Michigan or under Rodriguez. Despite having respectable talent -- Obi Ezeh, former five-star recruit Jonas Mouton and former starting safety Stevie Brown -- linebacker play has been an extreme weakness the last two years. With Robinson shifting to a hybrid 3-4/3-5-3, I expect him to bring in a linebacker coach who has either worked with him in the past or has extensive experience in the 3-4. Hopson staying on the staff would be a surprise.

One other thing that has to get fixed: turnovers. Seriously, what the fuck? I don't have a problem with the interceptions (Tate Forcier has thrown nine touchdowns and five picks this year, which is pretty good for a true freshman), but the fumbles are out of control. Michigan has lost EIGHT fumbles in the last three Big Ten games, and you're just not gonna win when you're making those mistakes. Too many drives have been killed and too many easy scores have been set up for the opponent. The easy answer is that this just an effect of RichRod's offense, but that's not the case. Here are his turnover margins at West Virginia:

2001: -8
2002: +19
2003: +16
2004: +3
2005: +14
2006: +7
2007: +13

Case closed. If anything, a run-based offense that isn't reliant on pitch plays should have fewer turnovers than most. However, this gives me no explanation for the current problems. I guess all I can do is hope that as the young players get more familiar with the offensive schemes and what they're supposed to be doing, they'll be able to pay more attention to simple things like holding onto the ball.

So ... where does that leave us? Again, Michigan needs one win in three games to become bowl-eligible. If UM beats Purdue but finishes 6-6, that's fine. If UM loses to Purdue but beats Wisconsin, that's fine too. I don't really care which game Michigan wins, but anything that doesn't end with a bowl game will result in a long offseason full of incoherent message board rants about firing Rodriguez, and I don't even want to think about that scenario.

What I want is for Michigan to get back to the point where I'm excited every Saturday rather than worried about which team will show up, but I won't feel that way this year until the sixth win is in the bag -- the sooner the better.

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