Thursday, September 08, 2005

We're Talking About A Team With A Losing Record Against Willingham | by Mike

In our season preview, I picked Michigan to defeat the Fightin’ Irish. The elephant in the room, which I could not ignore, was the home team’s record in recent years – namely, undefeated since 1994.

However, between my respect for Charlie Weis and my lack of respect for Michigan, it’s hard not to have some optimism. So here are a few reasons – hopefully less obvious than Michigan’s much discussed difficulties on defense – why the Irish might emerge victorious from Saturday’s clash.

Stopping the Michigan Offense

Both teams are confident in their offenses, and both teams are concerned with their defenses. A common refrain this week has been, "If ND commits the resources to stopping Hart and the ground game, Michigan will destroy them through the air." On its face, this statement appears somewhat convincing. In Michigan, Notre Dame faces a ground game whose feature back, if not flashy, is pretty damn consistent. And Michigan's stable of fleet-footed receivers is a disconcerting prospect for a team with a suspect secondary.

However - with a hat tip to omahadomer on ND Nation - allow me to suggest that if we can stop Michigan's ground game, we'll win. What about Avant, Breaston, et al? Not nearly as important as stopping the run. I'm inclined to agree with omahadomer that the team who can run will win. Let's look at the rushing totals in past years (winning team's stats in bold).

Notre Dame

The correlation is clear. When we have out-rushed Michigan, we have won. But what of Avant, Breaston, Tabb and Dutch, you ask? That's undoubtedly a talented crop of receivers, but does that strike you as any better than UM's WR corps in 2004, 2002, or 1998? Adrian Arrington is out with an injury, and Breaston has, so far, been more dangerous in the kicking game than as a wideout. If Michigan couldn't overcome a rushing disadvantage with star Braylon Edwards, why should we expect that to happen without him?

While Notre Dame lost some starters in the defensive front seven that were particularly well-suited to stopping the run (and, perhaps, less well-suited to defending the pass), slowing down the Michigan running game should not be an insurmountable task.

The "Michigan Man" Mentality

Just as Duke “leader who happens to coach basketball” Mike Krzyzewski is convinced no Duke player has ever committed a foul, Bo Schembechler and his ilk are convinced Michigan has never lost a game. In those instances where Michigan had fewer points than the opposition at the conclusion of the game, it would be wrong to assume that Michigan lost. Instead, the result can only be understood by some combination of cheating refs, Michigan’s own unforced errors (which apparently don’t count), the weather, the Pac-10’s unfair homefield advantage in the Rose Bowl, that uppity girl that brought down B.J. Askew, the sun in their eyes, cheating timekeepers, kickoff returns for touchdowns (which apparently don’t count), entrapment by the Ypsilanti police department, broken gentlemen’s agreements, the wind, Michigan kicking field goals instead of going for touchdowns (apparently they are to be retroactively awarded touchdowns for those drives), Kelly Baraka’s dealer, the weather, unruly Michigan students attacking Marlin Jackson’s beer bottles with their faces, cheating refs, the unreasonably high prices at K-Mart, and injuries.

For evidence of this complex, look at what former UM QB Michael Taylor has to say about Notre Dame:
Mike, you were 0-2 as a starter against Notre Dame? What is it about playing them? Is it different from any other team for U-M?

In the '89 game I was hurt and shouldn't have played, but I did. '89 was when Rocket returned those kickoffs ...

But as far as any Notre Dame mystique? That really doesn't mean anything to Michigan players or coaches. They always have decent talent. They get good kids. And it's a rivalry game -- with any rivalry game, it's momentum, momentum changes, and who steps up and plays and who doesn't. They've won 2 of the last 3, with the two wins at Notre Dame. The first one -- Willingham's first year -- I chalk the loss up to bad officiating. That phantom TD -- the guy loses ball 2 yards from goal line. Plus Michigan made too many mistakes. Last year -- Michigan should've won, but they turned the ball over and didn't make plays at crunch time. It's a game of inches in these big games. But it doen't get in your head. It's a rivalry game, so it's close, a game of inches. It's all about who executes and who doesn't. They have good team, and it's always hard to play them. But they don't have us 'in the head'.
He dismisses the results of the '89 game due to injuries (excuse 18 above) and kickoff returns (excuse 8 above). The 2002 game is attributed to Michigan's own mistakes (excuse 2) and cheating refs (excuses 1 and 16 - some excuses are invoked so often they have to be listed twice). Taylor conveniently omits that Michigan did not recover said fumble. Then again, "Forget it, he's rolling." For the 2004 game, Taylor again invokes Michigan's own mistakes (excuse 2).

Why this excursus, and what is its relevance to Saturday's game? Until you recognize your own failings, you can't correct them. As Charlie Weis stated in his first press conference back in December:
You are what you are folks, right now you're a 6-5 football team. And guess what - that's just not good enough.
This inability to recognize failure may explain why Michigan is so consistently a good but not great (i.e. 9-3 year after year) team.

What of the argument that, "Sure, Michigan fans make those excuses, but the players don't really buy that"? Above we have evidence of a former Michigan player making those very excuses. And not just any player - the starting quarterback, Bo's leader on the field. As Charlie Weis often says, "the attitude of the head coach is permeated throughout the team." Might Taylor have picked this attitude up from Bo? And might Bo have passed this attitude on to his successors? Perhaps.

Bungling Assistant Coaches

From 2002-2004, I - and many other Irish fans, I'm sure - wondered how a school with the prestige and visibility of Notre Dame could be saddled with such inept assistants as Diedrick, Preston, and Wilks. The Notre Dame spotlight has served as a launching pad for several former assistants, including Barry Alvarez and Frankie Muniz. Surely we could have done better than a running backs coach (sic) who gives Ryan Grant more carries when Julius Jones is averaging a first down a carry. And surely we could do better than a OC/QB coach whose claim to fame was teaching the pre-snap Diedrick Dump. (Which, by the way, Weis immediately corrected.)

With these mall cops removed, I can finally delight in the head-scratching decision of another school with considerable (football) prestige to employ overmatched assistant coaches. While we have purged the specter of Diedrick and Preston, UM fans are haunted by Jim Herrmann, Ron English, and Scot (you're missing a "t") Loeffler.

Herrman and English have conspired to create the defense that worries Michigan fans so much, a defense which Braylon Edwards publicly dogged during one of ESPN's draft week features last April. I was surprised to hear Edwards openly air his grievances regarding the team's weakness against scrambling quarterbacks.

Scot Loeffler's presence provides Irish fans some comfort when faced with an older, wiser Chad Henne. Granted, Henne will benefit from having a year’s more experience than he did the last time he faced Notre Dame. However, Loeffler has also had that same amount of time to screw up Henne’s mechanics. As Michigan’s season progressed last year, Henne appeared to show signs of developing the patented Loeffler Low Release Point™. Recall that this was the technique that led to 6’ 6” John Navarre rifling passes into the shoulder pads of opposing defensive linemen with amazing frequency. Hopefully several of Henne’s passes will find themselves batted at the line this Saturday. The Diedrick Dump is dead; long live the Loeffler Low Release Point!

And finally...

I guess the Michigan excuse makers are right about one thing. You should never rule out the possibility of Michigan doing something stupid at a critical moment. Or refusing to learn from stupid mistakes. It could always happen again.

Send Lloyd home bitter, Charlie.