Sunday, November 29, 2015

Michigan 13, Ohio State 42: November blues

When you get a new coach, and the hype builds and reacts with the reality of the present situation -- the roster, the schedule, the standard transitional questions of scheme and philosophy-- you get a test tube bubbling with scenarios.

Best case scenarios, worst case scenarios and something in the middle.

Worst case? Michigan was looking at something similar to last year, or maybe a little better: 5-7, 6-6, the Harbaugh effect setting in, but not so much to offset a lack of talent at a number of spots.

Best case? Well, you have just about close to what happened. If not for a once-in-a-generation-style loss against rival Michigan State, the Wolverines would have been 10-1 heading into the Ohio State game, with their destiny in their own hands in terms of a conference title game berth.

Then, there's the vast in between.

When all was said and done, Michigan finished at the upper end of that in between, a 9-3 peppered with impressive blowouts, a pair of close losses (one on the road against a strong Utah team to open the season, the other at home in fairly ridiculous fashion).

Then, there was this past Saturday.

After opening as double-digit underdogs in the summer against the defending national champion Buckeyes, most places had this one even heading into Saturday. Michigan was fresh off a better-than-it-looked win at Penn State, and the Buckeyes were reeling after a listless loss at home against Michigan State.

But the Buckeye team that took the field was not the one that took the field the week before, in spirit and in execution.

The previously disgruntled Ezekel Elliot carried it 30 times for 214 yards and two scores (7.1 yards per carry), and J.T. Barrett only had to pass 15 times (and really, he didn't even have to pass that many times).

Closing a season in which Michigan adeptly hid its deficiencies against the majority of its schedule, it was unable to do so, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, in two of its last three games, when the Hoosiers and Buckeyes tore through the Michigan defense like it wasn't there.

Sure, injuries on the defensive line were an issue, but probably not so much as to send the Wolverines into an abyss of vastly less-effective run defense.

Unfortunately for Jim Harbaugh and Co., they just didn't have enough tricks to take on a refocused Buckeye team, eager to wash away the disappointment of blowing its chance for a Big Ten title game appearance (and thus, likely a chance at another college football playoff berth).

In retrospect, considering Michigan went into the half down just 14-10, the second half is all the more disappointing.

The Buckeyes had their way with the Michigan defense: think the Indiana game, only with more talent, and an actual defense to shut down the Wolverines' surging yet one-dimensional attack (and who would've thought that the effective dimension would be the passing game).

While the initial reaction is surely embarrassment, and a glum resignation, the reality is that Michigan has a long way to go.

The linebackers, who were deemed the weak link of the defense early on, were preyed upon by the Ohio State attack. They looked slow, indecisive, and not up to the task of Urban Meyer's talented, athletic attack, keyed by Elliott and Barrett's skillful running ability.

The good news? Michigan returns players like Bryan Mone on the defensive line next year. The bad? The linebackers are gone, save junior Blake Gedeon. If Michigan's defense is to avoid a reprisal of this performance, some answers will need to be found here, and fast.

Through the air, even Jourdan Lewis didn't have a great day, even though Barrett completed just nine of his 15 passes. But, such is life when facing talents like Michigan State's Aaron Burbridge and Ohio State's Michael Thomas.

Offensively, Michigan's inability to make hay on the ground finally sunk it in a big way. For all of his heroics earlier in the season, De'Veon Smith's (10 carries, 23 yards) lack of any sort of speed (or, more importantly, explosiveness) or ability to consistently hit the right hole continued to be an issue. The fact that Jabrill Peppers led the Wolverines in rushing (7 carries, 29 yards) is not ideal, nor is the fact that fullback Sione Houma was third in carries.

Meanwhile, Ty Isaac has disappeared since his fumble issues, and Derrick Green, as unfortunate as it is, does not seem to be a viable option.

Michigan did well enough in keeping Jake Rudock's jersey clean when he was in the pocket this season; that is, until Joey Bosa et al came to the Big House. On the ground, Michigan will have to hope that another year of seasoning will make this collection of linemen a little bit better in 2016.

But, it won't matter unless the Wolverines can find a tailback that can do the job. And right now, Michigan has a roster of ball carriers who each carry a significant flaw that seemingly prevents them from being a reliable feature back.

Ignoring the obvious vacuum at quarterback post-Rudock -- and Michigan does at least have options there, albeit unproven -- the running back position and the new slate of guys at linebacker will be the biggest question marks heading into next season, discounting the obvious of all-around improving of the skill and athleticism of the skill players on the outside.

In a world of one-game scenarios, it goes without saying that Saturday's blowout falls under the umbrella of worst-case. After a successful season, one would have thought that Michigan had put the days of blowout losses in The Game (e.g. 2008 and 2010) behind it.

Unfortunately, Saturday proved otherwise. If you don't have the players, you don't have the players, and no amount of coaching acumen or schematic chicanery can disguise that fact, particularly when met with the well-oiled machine Meyer has built in Columbus.

So, here we are: 9-3, with three losses to the best opponents on Michigan's schedule. The Wolverines beat who they were "supposed" to beat, and probably a couple others that might not have fallen in that category when the season started.

Overall, the 2015 season will be remembered as the year of transition, a strong first step toward better football and, Michigan fans hope, the beginning of a long and prosperous era on the gridiron in Ann Arbor.

Until those next steps can be taken, though, Michigan is left with the sour taste of Saturday -- of Elliott running through the line, of the Buckeyes not letting up late (which, for the record, I would not expect them to, nor would I necessarily advocate doing if the situations were reversed), of another rival's post-game celebration on the Big House turf.

The Wolverines will get a chance to notch a 10th win, potentially completing just its second double-digit win season since the end of the Lloyd Carr era. That is something worth applauding for now, as Michigan gets back on its feet after wandering aimlessly for the better part of a decade, like someone in a new city with a dead phone and unhelpful townies.

Irrespective of what happens in some prospective bowl game in Florida or California, Michigan successfully eluded the macroscopic reality of its present state for most of the 2015 season.

On Saturday, there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

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