Tuesday, November 17, 2009

It's all come down to this

I've obviously been out of commission for about the last week and a half. I didn't intend to stop writing smack dab in the middle of the best time of year, but getting sick twice in a week right after finding out I'll soon be losing my job has taken its toll, and Michigan isn't exactly sparking my creativity.

What can I say? The defense has somehow gotten worse over the last month, which I didn't think was possible, while the offense has sort of stagnated. It hasn't been bad, but teams are loading up to stop the run and UM is too often settling for field goals in the red zone, and that won't get the job done when the other team is scoring a touchdown on every possession. Since allowing 26 points in the overtime loss to Michigan State, Michigan has given up (not including the Delaware State massacre) 30, 35, 38, 38 and 45 points. Pathetic. When you score 28 against Iowa and 36 against Purdue, that should be plenty (and 24 against a good Wisconsin defense should certainly keep you in the game).

I still feel like UM can beat just about anyone, but I'm also aware that the only time the defense has a chance to make a stop is when the other team screws up or tries to run up the middle repeatedly. Wisconsin ran the ball with some success, but that was after kicking the crap out of UM's linebackers by throwing right at them and demonstrating their complete inability to cover anyone (or any area). John Clay had 109 of his 151 rushing yards in the second half, while the solid but unspectacular Scott Tolzien ended up with four passing touchdowns and a rushing score, pretty much all of which were a direct result of the middle of the field being undefended (hooray for stupid linebackers and safeties).

At this point, I've just about checked out emotionally; I don't think there's any other way to retain my sanity. I set my expectations lower and lower every week, and yet I'm somehow still disappointed with the epically bad defensive performances. Another poor season (more on that momentarily) is all but in the books, and the only thing that can salvage it is a win over Ohio State. Beyond that, I'll just be glad it's over.

Beat Ohio State and everything changes. The last five weeks might not be completely forgotten, but they'd be just as far in the past as the memorable win over Notre Dame. People wouldn't be talking about losing seasons and the never-ending losing streak against OSU; they'd be talking about Rich Rodriguez's biggest win at UM and which bowl Michigan would be invited to, while all the heat would once again shift toward Jim Tressel. Rose Bowls are great, but do you think OSU fans would be happy with a nine-win season and a loss to Michigan? If you're not sure, go ask John Cooper.

From a realistic standpoint, though, things don't look good this weekend. Ohio State is a 12-point favorite, and the way Michigan has lost the last few weeks doesn't give me much hope that they can win a close game in which every play counts. It seems that when something goes wrong, the team's attitude is, "Well, we're fucked," and it's hard to believe things will change drastically against a team with the exact opposite mentality that makes so few mistakes (and has one of the best defenses in the country to top it off).

I've been trying to figure out exactly how much of an improvement this season will be if UM ends up 5-7, and I've come to the conclusion that as far as an overall assessment, not much has changed since the middle of the year. The offense is still miles ahead of last year's (in every area) and the special teams have gone from bad to pretty good, but the defense is an embarrassment that desperately needs talent in the back seven and position coaches that can explain the seemingly simplistic idea of playing an assignment.

I've heard at least three people in the national media say this week that Rodriguez will be fired, and I would like to clarify the issue right now: The chances of that happening are zero. Unless RichRod goes on a Gary Moeller-style rampage and publicly humiliates himself and the school in some way that's completely unrelated to football, he'll be back on the sidelines in 2010 and probably 2011, if not longer. UM President Mary Sue Coleman came out just last week and said this about Rodriguez:
"I don't think it's fair to coaches to bring them in and say, 'We're going to give you three years,'" she said.
Both Coleman and athletic director Bill Martin have said repeatedly that they're 100% behind Rodriguez and intend to give him time to get through the transition and rebuild the program, and I've been saying all along that UM's administration has no interest in going through another coaching search until it's absolutely clear that Rodriguez isn't the answer. There's no way that can be said right now, and even if the people in power do start to lean toward that decision, I highly doubt Coleman would sign off on a firing after publicly coming out and saying that it'd be unfair to do so within three years.

If Michigan somehow misses a bowl game next year (which is highly unlikely given the schedule and the minimal losses on both sides of the ball), I think a change becomes a possibility -- a very small one, but a possibility. But in just about every other scenario, Rodriguez will get until at least 2012 to show what he can do.

Is that a good thing? Probably. I have to be willing to admit that there's a possibility RichRod doesn't end up succeeding, but if that happens, it won't be due to his coaching; it will be due to his inability to find a quality defensive coordinator. I'm not saying Greg Robinson won't end up being a success, but it's a lot more likely than Rodriguez not having success offensively, particularly because there isn't a young reservoir of defensive talent. It's easy to see Tate Forcier, Michael Shaw, Vincent Smith, Daryl Stonum, Martavious Odoms and Roy Roundtree being the makings of a great offense in two or three years, but I can't say the same thing on defense. The personnel is lacking, and I have yet to see evidence that the coaches can overcome that.

This all brings me back to one more reason it'd be nice to win the Ohio State game: There will be at least five four-star defensive back recruits in attendance, all of whom have Michigan as a leader or among a leading group. Getting two or three of those guys would be a great start toward getting that defense to the same level as the offense, and that would make me a hell of a lot more confident about UM's (and RichRod's) eventual success.

But for now, just beat Ohio State. I haven't seen a Michigan win since September (the Delaware State game wasn't televised), and I don't know if I can make it another 10 months.

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