Thursday, February 10, 2011

Here Comes the Story of the Hurricane

It's interesting how such a high profile guy from a "high profile" family has sort of slipped under the radar amidst the winds of change in Schembechler Hall. Tate Forcier was not without his flaws, but he was a Wolverine (often times a great one), and he has chosen, like his brothers before him, to take his talents elsewhere. While I do not wish to imply that this is a debilitating loss in any way other than the quarterback depth perspective for next season, Tate was perhaps the most controversial, and, dare I say it, definitive figure of the RR era and it's collapse. No offense to Steven Threet, but this transfer is an entirely different beast. At least the weather will be nice.

And so we sit in the doldrums of the dreaded offseason with too much time to think about things. Why was Kenny Demens consistently lined up so close to the line? Why did the coaching staff pretend that Craig Roh could be anything but an end? Why did Tate Forcier ultimately decide that Ann Arbor was not for him anymore (and, let's be honest, thoughts of leaving were likely in his head even before the academic troubles)?

What went wrong?


Put him in a prison cell but one time he coulda been
The champion of the world 

You might posit that the answers to that question are fairly obvious. His dubious commitment to academics, Denard's Great Leap Forward, and even his cursed 2009 shoulder all did him in in a series of blows coming from outside and within. These are all true, and yet, I still see a Michigan offense being effectively led by Tate Forcier. In any case, that will not happen. All we have available to us is the tragic rise and fall of a young man who reached the top likely far sooner that he would have wanted, only to begin a long, slow decline reminiscent of the former Ottoman Empire, the so called Sick Man of Europe.

The Rise

We all remember it fondly. Emerging from the destruction and sorrow that was the 2008 season was one Tate Forcier, whose talents and aura has been hyped up for many months, on the heels of his recruitment and early enrollment. By the Western Michigan game, he wasn't the typical freshman who comes in in August, thrown to the fire and asked to enter games here and there against teams with players several years older and many pounds heavier. He was still small and physically underdeveloped, but he was full of GRIT and MOXIE, like a quarterbacking doppleganger of Zack Novak. After a season of superior talent losing to vastly inferior or comparable teams, and a season of unmentionable anarchy, this was a welcome change. Sadly, when I think of these aforementioned traits, I think of Troy Smith in 2005 driving down the field, avoiding the rush to find Anthony Gonzalez down the field, delivering the penultimate blow and completing the comeback. The rise of Tate was all of that...for a while.

Any discussion of Tate Forcier begins and ends with the 2009 Notre Dame game. While Notre Dame was certainly not an elite squad, the importance of the game at the time holds fast. It was a game that Michigan needed, much like Michigan needed the 2010 Notre Dame game in South Bend. Then again, it is historically accurate that Michigan "needs" to win every Notre Dame game to have a good season. It is the first step, the gateway to greater things. Upon reaching this gate, Tate Forcier juked the Cover 0 and kick flipped over and beyond it like Bart Simpson in his most mischievous state.

And the rest is history. I still remember seeing images of Tate and Coach Rod after the game, and it seemed that everything was alright for the first time in a while. They were, to use a hackneyed expression, on the same page, and the brilliant offensive mind that Rich Rodriguez had brought to Ann Arbor has seemingly been infused in the skull of this young man from California. Whereas pat White executed methodically and quickly, each read option like a blitzkrieg of moving parts, Tate Forcier did it in his own way. Sometimes he scrambled for too long, taking sacks and causing a general pulling of hair and gnashing of teeth. Then, on the very next play, with no intention of changing his overall raison d'etre, he'd scramble and hit the open man. He'd often take the most unorthodox path, zig-zagging, going bckwards, almost falling and taking another sack like a drunken bumblebee. Then it would all come together, as if to say "Hey guys, this was my plan all along. I've got this."

For a second it reminded me of Johnny's bittersweet musings on Michael Hart:

A few seconds after Minor fumbled they showed Mike walking up the sideline with his helmet in his hand, and this “I’ll handle it,” look on his face. Like he’d done it before and he almost wanted to laugh because he was about to do it again. Maybe he was hurt, maybe he wasn’t. But he ran for 115 yards in the fourth quarter and had the guts to talk to us after it was all over.

Only this time it was different. While Mike's drive to put the team on his back was relentless and full of angst and rage and desperation, Tate's was free-wheeling and weightless, as if all this didn't matter but hey we might as we'll win while we're here. We had the golden boy, the one that the media would fawn over and talk about in a Favre-esque sense (whether you think that is a good or bad thing is obviously up for debate). It seemed that  the good will of the universe was on our side for the first time in a while. I don't think that, even after the Notre Dame win, anybody expected to go undefeated (or even win the Big Ten), but we all thought we'd have a chance if things kept going the way that they were up to that point.


The Fall

It all happened so suddenly. In one triumphant moment, the seeds of the end were sown.

It was a Pyhrric victory. We got the win, but at a cost. He was never the same for the rest of the season, like a prized horse trying to go on a gimpy leg. It is probably convenient to cite this as one of the reasons for the fall and not, for example, the upswing in the level of competition as the season went on, but, as I said, there are many reasons for how the Tate Forcier era came and went in a flash and a cloud of smoke.

The season went on and we all know what happened. The Iowa game engendered the beginnings of the Legend of Denard, and Tate's struggles in the OSU game opened the door for legitimate competition for the position in 2010.

From that point until the news of his academic issues, it is unclear what really transpired. The offseason came and went, and Devin Gardner took the field when Denard took his standard snap or two off each game due to injury. He didn't work as hard as Denard in the offseason, his attitude had gone sour...who knows. All we have is what goes into the box and what comes out, and what came out was a bitter, immature shell of what we saw the year before when he was on top of the world.

Illinois came to town and we were returned to familiar feelings. With Denard out, Tate was asked to lead the team once again, having regained the good will of Coach Rod after a tumultous offseason. And, like the 2009 ND game, he did not disappoint.

Even then, it was clear that Denard was the man. Even the above interaction between RR and Tate is a shadowy outline of their embrace following the 2009 ND game. Like Napoleon's Hundred Days, Tate was once again exiled to second string shortly thereafter. There was still hope for Tate as a Wolverine, but as a leader of the team?

Now we have our answer. His immaturity, repressed by praise and adulation circa 2009, emerged. He was no longer a Wolverine, and then he definitively distanced himself from Ann Arbor by taking his talents to Coral Gables. Despite it all, I see a Michigan team led by Tate Forcier--a new, mature, better Tate--in some alternate universe that exists only in the minds of the optimistic (or the delusional), a world where Crable takes the inside guy and Demar Dorsey enforces a No Fly Zone with aplomb over the Ann Arbor skies. Like the RR era, it was not meant to be, and like the RR era, it was a case of what could've been.

What is there to say other than "good luck, Tate?" If the career arc of Tate Forcier tells us anything, it is that the great can rise and fall in the span of a blink of an eye, that greatness and longevity are not given let alone assured. He was bred to be a quarterback from the beginning, from when he was a bright-eyed tyke to a cocky free-styling high schooler. Yet, as we all know, college football, the game we all love, doesn't care about what you did before. It takes all your accomplishments and shreds them, pointing to the Big House as if to say you're not the first to come through this place.

As fans, we can only say that to take things for granted is foolish. Very few players ever achieve the brief success that Tate did in his short reign as the leader of the Michigan offense. His penchant for the miraculous and unplanned maneuvering will not soon be forgotten. Even the selflessness he displayed in 2010, trying his best to cage the inner drive to be the man despite the existence of Denard (and even Devin), while also winning us the Illinois game, will always be something that I'll remember. While his nature (i.e., being a 20 year-old kid) did him in in the end, he could've left a while ago, like many often do when put in his situation. The rise and fall of Tate Forcier was swift and not necessarily unwritten for quite some time, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating. Despite the way he went out, I hope that he will be remembered for what he did and not for what he didn't do.

That's the story of the Hurricane
But it won't be over till they clear his name
And give him back the time he's done

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Meet Me At The Ball

As much as we all love to talk offense, it is the defense that will ultimately decide our fate. I know this, you know this, and while defensive schemes have evolved and changed over the years, the execution of the fundamental principles have not. And, for the first time in a while, we have a man leading the defense that the fanbase can have the utmost confidence in. Rather than going out there and simply hoping for the best, hoping for the players to coach themselves and learn from their own mistakes, we can expect real, definitive direction. For the first time in a few years, we will have an identity. Craig Roh will be asked do something (hopefully rush the passer) and he will be coached to do that thing well. As much as I have expressed some misgivings about the Hoke hire (for which, as I'm sure is true for many "In Rod We Trusted" clan members), the Greg Mattison has helped assuage many of my fears. Greg Mattison, as of right now, is the golden goose for the Michigan football coaching staff. This is old news, of course, as we have finally reached NSD, but the importance of this hiring cannot be overstated. Rich Rodriguez's essential failure has become one of Brady Hoke's first triumphs. Progress.


Defense is animalistic and violent. It is quick and vicious and subtle in its calculated imperative to search and destroy. While I am of the opinion that scheme does not matter (i.e., any scheme can conceivably be executed given good coaching and the appropriate personnel). Defense is the raw manifestation of attitude. As Coach Lloyd Carr spoke to in the above video, defense is simple, yet, at the same time, it has not been so simple in the post-1997 era. We have had above average defenses since then (namely, 2006), but we have not seen a defense with the ability to take, as they say, "take over a game." Even the 2006 unit had its issues, particularly in the secondary, that were exposed in the OSU and USC games that season.

Michigan defense is different than any other brand of defense. It is silent but deadly. It is fundamental but strong. It is something that holds and says to the offense do what you may, we will still be here. We are always here, indomitable and relentless. 

I don't know how good we will be on defense next year. We have a majority of our starters coming back. That in and of itself indicates that we will be better. People often underestimate the youth factor in college football. In the NFL, a mediocre 6th year linebacker will probably be mediocre for the rest of his career. In college this is emphatically not so. Youth becomes experience, often as soon as any given contributor's sophomore year. What we ask for is competence. The offense will be there. Denard will still run around people slower than him (which, naturally, is almost everybody), the receivers will make plays and one of the runningbacks will become "the man," as has been the case many times before. Will the defense be there? 

It is easy to point at statistics and say that a defense is playing well. The question is, what is a good Michigan defense? 

Michigan defense is three winged helmets battering into the ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage. The reserves on the sideline jump up and down,  each time raising the winged helmet closer to the sky. It is jubilance and an active scoffing at this thing we call "offense." It is workmanlike and spectacular all at once. The 1997 defense was the epitome of this dual identity. We will beat you into submission and then we will dazzle you with what we can do. We will snatch it from the sky if we have to. 

Michigan defense at its finest is an amalgamation of eleven moving parts aiming to destroy whatever is before them. Defense is a celebration of dominance, a macabre yet glorious dance of defiance at the well-laid plans of an opposing team's offensive unit. Your plans mean nothing. In fact, we have no plan other than to destroy your plan by instinctual prowess and the involuntary twitching of our muscle fibers. 


I was eight years old in 1997.  I suppose I have grown up with a sense of entitlement as to what a Michigan defense should look like as result. I remember watching the 1998 Rose Bowl while eating Skittles like popcorn, watching the show that was the Michigan defense. It was so seamless and beautiful that every Michigan defense since then can only dream of reaching the technical and psychological dominance of that unit. It became something that was a given. Then, it wasn't. The rock of Michigan football had been thrown away to sink in the depths of Lake Huron, to sink slowly down each year, descending into the far reaches of our subconscious. We don't even know what defense really is anymore. Is it feasible? Is it possible, even? 

The struggles on the defensive side of the ball in the past 10+ years are rendered more frustrating due to the nature of the flaws of said defense. Tackling. Pre-snap alignment. Appropriate utilization of personnel (e.g., ROH, FOR GOODNESS SAKES). It's time to get back to the basics. To put it simply, meet me at the ball. I'll be there, and if things go as they should, you'll be there too. And they'll all jump.