[Editor’s Note: From now until Big Ten Media Days, we’ll be reaching into The-Ozone’s 23 years worth of archives and each day we will be posting a story from yesteryear. Big moments, small moments, big games, bigger games, and the random recruiting updates about guys you haven’t thought about in a decade or two.]
October 12, 2008 | You may not know this, but year in and year out, Michigan football was not always one of the Big Ten’s seven or eight best teams. For a three-year period beginning with the hiring of Rich Rodriguez in 2008, they took a significant step backward. In Rodriguez’s first season, the Wolverines managed a pitiful 3-9 record, which included a loss in Michigan Stadium to the University of Toledo. That Toledo team would go on to finish 3-9 as well. This edition of The-Ozone Rewind comes from Tony Gerdeman’s Michigan Monday following that 13-10 loss to the Rockets. — TG
Last week in this column I wrote, “They [Michigan] could very well lose their next seven games, including Toledo, if they don’t get better quarterback and secondary play.”
In Saturday’s 13-10 loss to Toledo, the Wolverines proved me a lucky guesser, as Michigan’s two quarterbacks went 15-27 for 120 yards and three interceptions. And the Wolverines’ secondary (with much help from the linebackers) allowed a Michigan opponent-record 20 receptions to Toledo receiver Nick Moore.
I may have said this before regarding Michigan, but we’re gonna need a bigger drawing board.
Opponents used to come into Michigan Stadium and know that they were going to have to play their best game–and get a little bit of luck–in order to pull out a win. Now, opponents come into Michigan Stadium knowing that unless something goes terribly awry, they are going to have every opportunity to win in Ann Arbor, and they seemingly have more confidence than the Wolverines.
Michigan has clearly lost any momentum they may have once had.
Losing to Toledo has to be rock bottom, and they say once you hit rock bottom, the only place you have to go is up. But that’s not entirely true because rock bottom is plenty spacious.
So pull up a chair and make yourself at home, Michigan, because you may be here a while.
When Michigan Was On Offense
The Wolverines put up 290 yards of total offense on the Rockets, with 170 of those coming from the ground game. Running back Sam McGuffie led the team with 105 yards rushing on 25 carries.
In the first half, McGuffie had 18 carries, nine of which went for two yards or less. In the second half, he only had seven carries, but managed to run for 48 yards with no carries less than three yards. The difference? Nick Sheridan was playing quarterback in the second half.
Steven Threet injured his elbow towards the end of the half and sat for the rest of the game. With Threet out and Sheridan in, there was now a nearly legitimate running threat at quarterback, so the defense couldn’t just key on McGuffie, and he thrived.
Everybody knows that until this offense has a quarterback that can run the ball, this offense will struggle despite all of Rich Rodriguez’s statements to the contrary.
However, even though Threet isn’t a great runner doesn’t mean he shouldn’t run more. The defense has to respect him and until they do, the running game is going to suffer. So what if he gets two yards per carry, it will at least allow McGuffie to improve his effectiveness. If Threet can just pull one linebacker off of McGuffie’s case, then he may be able to find the hole that gets him those elusive first downs.
And when Nick Sheridan came in, the running game blossomed. In the first half, the Wolverines had 24 carries for 92 yards. With Sheridan in in the second half, they only carried the ball 15 times, but those carries went for 78 yards. Sheridan himself rushed for 27 yards, though he did lose six on a sack.
The running game flourished, but the passing game struggled. Sheridan isn’t as decisive as Threet with the football and perhaps his worst trait is that his receivers refuse to help him out on iffy throws.
Sheridan threw two interceptions in the second half and both came via tipped passes off of receiver Toney Clemons’ hands. Both throws were high, but they were still catchable.
Steven Threet’s biggest advantage over Sheridan is that his errant throws are too far away from anybody to be intercepted. There is no fear of a tipped pass when it is thirteen yards beyond anybody in the vicinity.
Last week Rich Rodriguez called his team soft. If this was in reference to the offensive line, he can take solace in the fact that what Michigan’s offensive line lacked in toughness this week, they made up for with slowness.
Left guard Mark Ortmann and right tackle Steven Schilling were both called for holding and if a Big Ten ref is calling holding, you know there had to be some serious jersey grabbing going on.
Center David Molk whiffed on a blitz pick-up and allowed Michigan’s only sack of the day.
And I talk about this every week seemingly, but the Wolverines continue to run wide receiver screens that require offensive tackles to get to the sideline and try to block a defensive back or linebacker. This week, Rich Rodriguez not only asked Steven Schilling to make that block, but first he had to block inside on the defensive lineman to keep him from running wide. So not only is he supposed to run and get somewhere he can’t get to even with a head start, but he’s also being asked to make an initial block on a defensive lineman! Why not give him a crack at quarterback while you’re at it.
The passing game was hampered by not having Martavious Odoms available this week due to a shoulder injury. It was also hampered by Steven Threet who threw a terrible pass into the end zone that was intercepted and returned for a 100-yard touchdown.
Rich Rodriguez definitely has a conundrum on his hands. Threet knows where he’s supposed to go with the football most of the time, but his accuracy lacks existence. Nick Sheridan is the better runner, but when he’s passing the ball, he seems to hope he’s doing something good, rather than knowing it. Every time he throws the ball it’s like watching a game of Plinko, because the ball touches so many hands before it finally comes to rest.
Maybe the saddest thing about this offensive performance was that Toledo’s special teams gave Michigan plenty of good starts with regard to field position, and yet the Wolverines could only manage ten points.
Actually, the saddest thing was the fact that on Michigan’s final drive, they were given a tremendous spot on a fourth down play–like by about a yard–to keep their drive alive. And the replay officials didn’t even bother with it and Toledo head coach Tom Amstutz couldn’t do anything about it because he didn’t have any timeouts left. And then on Michigan’s last pass, they got away with a holding and an intentional grounding. Of course, had they called either, perhaps K.C. Lopata makes the game-tying kick from further out.
When Michigan Was On Defense
Defensive end Brandon Graham was out due to a leg injury and Michigan’s pass rush stayed on the sidelines with him.
Toledo quarterback Aaron Opelt completed 33 of 50 passes for 257 yards and was hardly touched. The Rockets dinked and dunked all day long and while it only produced field goals, that was obviously good enough.
Toledo’s offense only managed 327 yards of total offense and two field goals. But they were far from shut down.
It wasn’t just the lack of Brandon Graham’s presence that limited Michigan’s pass rush, it was also because the Rockets chose to roll Opelt out more than a dozen times, and it proved extremely effective.
Opelt rolled out to the right eight times and completed six passes for 52 yards. One incompletion was a bad pass to a wide open receiver and the other was a throwaway when everybody was covered in the end zone. He also had another 13-yard completion rolling out to the right that was negated by a chop block. Opelt rolled out to the left six times and completed four passes for 14 yards (though two passes did go for no gain). His two incompletions were due to bad passes, but the receivers were open both times.
Why do I mention this? Because on fifteen different roll outs, the Wolverines were only able to actually defend it approximately three times, and that was more due to the location and the direction of the roll outs.
I would say that any team that rolls their quarterback out in the direction that he throws will have success. Repeatedly.
Toledo only netted 70 yards rushing, but towards the end of the game when the Rockets were trying to run the clock out, they were having success running right up the middle. And Michigan knew it was coming.
The Wolverines went with the 3-3-5 for the most part, which is another large part of the reason why Opelt had so much time. Michigan did blitz, however, and safety Michael Williams had the Wolverines’ lone sack on one of their many blitzes.
The defensive line didn’t really do too much because the Rockets didn’t really run the ball and they threw the ball quickly as well.
The linebackers were again exposed in pass coverage and Toledo went right at them with receiver Nick Moore. Moore had twenty receptions, and he didn’t discriminate. He moved all over the field and lined up against linebackers, safeties and corners, and generally found the open spot.
Cornerback Donovan Warren was also out this week and in his place was true freshman Boubacar Cissoko. Cissoko, who is 5’8”, was frequently matched up against Stephen Williams, who is 6’4”, and he very much held his own against Williams. Cissoko may only be 5’8”, but he has the reach of a seven-footer. Provided he doesn’t somehow regress like Donovan Warren has, he is going to be a good one for the Wolverines.
Doug Dutch also played some cornerback and it looks like his classes at “Charles Stewart’s Tackling Academy” are paying off.
The safeties didn’t get burned deep this week because Toledo didn’t go deep.
Part of the fun of watching Michigan is seeing what safety Stevie Brown does. This week, he wasn’t asked to do much, so it was kind of boring. On a Stephen Williams’ 23-yard reception, Brown was near him playing the slot, and Stevie stood still, never leaving the spot he was standing on. You have to wonder if the coaches told him, “Don’t you dare drop back into pass coverage!”
Stewart continues his onslaught on the missed tackle record books. Before his career is over, he will have rewritten every record there is regarding the art of the whiff.
And despite all of it, the Wolverine defense only gave up six points. Most years, that’s enough to win every time.
But this is far from “most years”.
Michigan’s Special Teams
Well, obviously, kicker K.C. Lopata missed a 26-yard field goal that would have tied the game with four seconds remaining, so that tells you much of what you need to know about the special teams this week. Lopata’s consistency has disappeared and he has only made four of his seven field goal attempts this year. At some point, you have to wonder if the kicking competition will be reopened.
Punter Zoltan Mesko continued to build on an impressive season, averaging 49.6 yards on five punts with a long of 63 yards. Mesko put four of his five punts inside the 20-yard line.
With Martavious Odoms out, Avery Horn took his place at kick returner. He returned two kicks for an average of 25.5 yards and didn’t look out of place on the field. And his most impressive statistic was zero fumbles, which will undoubtedly catch the staff’s eye.
What Does It All Mean?
It means the journey of a thousand miles starts with quarterback competency.
And that’s going to have to wait until 2009 at the earliest.
Until then, however, this team still has to go out there and play, and you have to wonder how much discouragement one team can take. Rich Rodriguez continues to say that the team will have to move on and build and get better, but at what point does doubt creep into the player’s mind?
Or is that not even a worry?
As it stands now, Michigan has about two legitimate chances for wins left on their schedule, and that’s giving them the benefit of the doubt–which, for some reason, I am doing even though they‘ve done nothing to earn it.
Maybe it’s just the optimist in me that’s hoping for a four-win season for Michigan‘s sake.
The Road To The Big One
Aug 30 Utah 25 – Michigan 23 (0-1)
Sept 6 Michigan 16 – Miami (OH) 6 (1-1)
Sept 13 Notre Dame 35 – Michigan 17 (1-2)
Sept 27 Michigan 27 – Wisconsin 25 (2-2)
Oct 4 Illinois 45 – Michigan 20 (2-3)
Oct 11 Toledo 13 – Michigan 10 (2-4)
Oct 18 at Penn State
Oct 25 Michigan State
Nov 1 at Purdue
Nov 8 at Minnesota
Nov 15 Northwestern
Nov 22 at Ohio State