Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Michigan 32, Florida State 33: The (third) one that got away

Some games are close, others "close," others somewhere in between.

Michigan's Orange Bowl matchup against Florida State Friday night fell somewhere in that in-between No Man's Land. After all, Michigan lost by one on a last-minute Seminoles field goal. They made some big plays in the second half, namely Mike McCray's pick six and, later, Chris Evans juked a Florida defender out of this dimension to put Michigan ahead with 1:57 to play.

That juke was the future in motion, an example of what can't be taught and what Michigan desperately needs more of: raw, unmitigated explosion. The ability to make people not just miss, but miss so badly that they fall to the ground, questioning what is up and what is down. It's the type of play elite talents make in big moments. Grinding opponents into dust on 10-play drives is fun, but Michigan has usually done that because it had no other option. But when you have the ability to take a shortcut, you take it, and that's what a player like Evans brings to the table.

In Evans, and some other promising players on offense (and, hopefully, some on defense, to be unleashed next season), Michigan has a game-changing talent. Unfortunately for Michigan, it didn't quite have enough of it this season when it counted, especially on offense. A close loss at an offensively challenged Iowa team, a brutal loss at Ohio State featuring five fourth-quarter yards and a bowl game with just 252 yards of offense, 4.3 yards per attempt through the air and this on the ground ...


... and it's safe to say Michigan's fall from possible eliteness to a degree or two below that starts here.

Even so, Michigan had a chance to pull out a 2012 Sugar Bowl-esque victory (I was at that game in New Orleans, and it was the kind of game that almost left you feeling compelled to apologize to the opposing fans for winning). Alas, 65 yards of Keith Gavin kick return yardage later and the Noles were in position to comfortably drive for a score, which they got ... by throwing at Jourdan Lewis in the corner of the end zone.

Go figure. Sometimes there's not much to say. Things happen. When Dalvin Cook runs around and past your defense a few times like they're painfully limited pawns on a chess board, that's one thing. When a team gets your All-American corner for a touchdown in a key situation?

Well, that's football.

---

When a season concludes, especially one like this one, there's always an urge to categorize it, to tag it, to fit it into a neat, little box.

Was it a "successful" season or was it a "disappointment"?

In truth, it's a little bit of both.

Michigan's three losses came by a total of five points. It's disappointing that with this collection of talent, Michigan wasn't able to find the one or two plays it needed to join the playoff field.

But, only four teams go, and only one team wins. If we're categorizing all seasons that don't end in a playoff berth or a national title as failures, just about every fan should be disappointed. That's no way to live.

What is disappointing is the still lingering conference title drought. As a high school sophomore in 2004, I never thought that would be Michigan's last conference crown for a long, long time.

Here we are, though. Next year, Michigan probably won't be a playoff-caliber squad, simply by virtue of what they need to replace on defense -- I do think, however, that competing for the division crown and a trip to Indianapolis are within reach, once the early-season growing pains are sorted out.

While the 2016 season ended with a thud, it can't be said enough: Michigan has won 10-games in consecutive seasons, just two years after going 5-7 and getting a coach fired. Yes, Hoke recruited fine in parts, but a failure to identify offensive talent, namely on the line, hamstrung Michigan this year.

Right now, for all of Michigan's defensive talent, that's the difference between them and the cream of the crop: Michigan's line just couldn't stand up. For further example of what that looks like, watch the tape of the Ohio State-Clemson game.

Until Michigan upgrades its line and fields upper-echelon skill position talent, its defense can never be good enough to carry it to a title, where it is at this point a pretty solid bet they'd have to beat Alabama.

One day. It didn't come together this year, and likely won't in 2017 by virtue of roster turnover.

After that? Anything is possible.

---
Of course, no season finale is complete without fond reminiscences over the players taking their abilities elsewhere, whether into the real world or the NFL.

This year is especially heavy on the heart, as Michigan loses a cast of likeable, not to mention very good, football players. Jourdan Lewis, Jabrill Peppers, Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow, Ben Gedeon, Taco Charlton, Channing Stribling, Delano Hill, Dymonte Thomas -- and that's just defense.

The odds are good Michigan will never have another Taco -- both in name and in his particular combination of size, speed and agility. While Michigan lacked game-changing ability on offense, there was no shortage of it on defense, thanks to players like Charlton. He was a bringer of doom, a destroyer of poor, unprepared tackles.

Lewis? Despite his size, he blanketed receivers, with such grace and ease -- even when a receiver seemed open, that was never the case.



As far as interceptions go, that play falls in the same category as Charles Woodson's in the 1997 Michigan State game. That's something. No one will remember the particulars of this year's defensive slugfest against Wisconsin, but they'll remember that play -- it's hard to forget something like that.

As for the defensive linemen, it will be some time before a Michigan defensive line is so unflinchingly dominant again. Wormley is a guy who has seemingly been around for eight years -- like Mike Martin, he's an example of a human being who is impossibly agile for his size. Watching him play, it's still hard to believe that Wormley weighs more than 300 pounds. Losing an agile, versatile planetoid on the defensive line will be a major loss, to say the least.

As for Glasgow, his journey -- and his brother's before him -- is all you need to know when considering why some think Jordan Glasgow could be something far more than a special teamer. Whatever it is, that family has it. Michigan missed Ryan Glasgow's presence late last season when he was knocked out with an injury -- they'll certainly miss it next year when he's beginning what should be a long and productive NFL career.

Peppers hasn't officially announced his departure, but it's safe to assume he's probably gone (rather, it would be a surprise if he returned, simply based on his draft projections). All in all, it feels like only yesterday when he committed to Brady Hoke's Michigan: a different time, a different world. Fans were robbed of a full 2014 season when he went down with an injury, but he entered the fray in 2015 and truly began to shine brightly this season. Few Michigan players, if any at all, have ever brought his overall speed, instincts and playmaking ability on defense and special teams. I only wonder if Michigan couldn't have done more with him; but that's over and done now.

For our purposes now, I'll say this: it might cause some whiplash when opposing teams run successful screens next season, or Michigan's punt returner, whoever it is, doesn't make the first few would-be tackles miss like they're not even there.

All of the above is not to discredit the offense, of course. Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, for example, had some big moments in their career. While Darboh had some unfortunate drops and lacked big-play speed, he was a mostly reliable option and a guy who could usually churn out some tough yards after contact. With Chesson, we'll always have the Florida game.

Then, of course, there's Jake Butt, whose Michigan career unfortunately ended on a sour note. (An aside, but for what it's worth, my personal opinion is that if the player wants to sit out a non-playoff bowl game to get ready for the draft, I have no problem with it. Would it be disappointing, from a selfish fan's point of view? Sure. But, the truth hurts: any bowl game not involving Alabama, Washington, Ohio State and Clemson this bowl season meant nothing in the grand scheme of things.) Like Wormley, Butt offered a unique combination of size, speed and technical ability. When Butt dropped an easy pass in a game this season, I was shocked, because it happened so infrequently.  When Jake Rudock to Wilton Speight needed a play, they could throw it up to him and count on him coming down with the ball more often than not. Michigan has some promising tight ends waiting to step up, but none will be Butt right away, if ever -- after all, most would probably agree he's the best tight end in program history.

The worst part is that none of these guys will play for Michigan again. They were all fun to watch, in good times and bad. It's a shame their times as Wolverines has to come to an end, but all things do.

And while 2016 ended on a down note, the season brought far more good than bad. And, eventually, Michigan will find itself on the winning side of the sort of games it lost this season, when a play or two flipped things.

It'll all come together, in due time. For now, fans will just have to be patient, and remember how things were not too long ago.

Until then, enjoy the ride.