NCF Nation: Brady Hoke
Unless, that is, you’re into watching the single-game FBS rushing record fall for the second straight Saturday. (So who breaks it this week?) Yes, last week was dull, unless, of course, you’re into Florida State’s weekly high-wire act, re-awakenings at Arkansas and Minnesota or UCLA’s continued stranglehold on Los Angeles.
My point is, the latest set of games didn’t significantly impact the College Football Playoff picture -- at least in comparison to the past few weeks. Barring some craziness at the selection-committee table, the top four on Tuesday night is going to look no different than last week’s edition.
But Week 13 was simply the calm before the storm. Not so sure? Check out first nine paragraphs Gene Wojciechowski’s BMOC column. The rocky road to Dec. 9 is enough to make a fan of any playoff contender choke on his or her turkey dinner.
And it starts in two days.
There will be teams left out who can make perfectly compelling cases to be playoff participants. There will be voices raised and criticisms leveled regarding which program truly deserved the final spot in the playoff. This much is a certainty.
But which teams have the best chances of cracking the field? It still seems to be a matter of conjecture beyond the top three teams: Alabama, Oregon and Florida State.
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Among them, dotting the "i" at Ohio State, lighting the Tower at Texas and rolling Toomer's Corner at Auburn. All fine events, but no list of such customs in the sport is complete without the latest craze: the wait for Tuesday night.
I say that somewhat jokingly, so refrain from the angry tweets. No, I don't really think it's more fun to dream about the details of a five-minute interview with Jeff Long than to decorate an intersection with toilet paper.
But it's close.
So welcome to the fourth of seven Tuesday College Football Playoff poll unveils, where it finally gets real in the selection-committee room.
Why is this Tuesday different? Because after last Saturday, none of the remaining unbeaten or one-loss Power 5 contenders will meet in the regular season or in conference-title games.
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The USC cornerback and team captain only has himself to blame for his predicament. He was the one who made up a feel-good story to explain his injured ankles. He was the one who initially hid it from his parents. He was the one who lied to Steve Sarkisian's face when the USC coach asked if he was telling the truth.
Shaw paid the price, suffering physical pain but much more mental anguish as he watched USC play its first 10 games, including Thursday night's home win against Cal. Three months later, it's fair to ask: Does he deserve a second chance? More on that in a bit.
The forgotten man is finally speaking about what happened, telling the Los Angeles Times' Bill Plaschke that he "hit the bottom" after details of The Lie came to light. Shaw explained that after an altercation with his longtime girlfriend, Angela Chilton, which he insists never became physical, he panicked when he saw police pull up to his building, thinking that she had called them.
"If she did say anything, I'm a black man with dreadlocks, and with everything going on in the country at the time, all that stuff in St. Louis [Ferguson, Mo.] … in my mind, I'm going to leap from the balcony so authorities did not see me."
That's how Shaw hurt himself (though not as bad as he initially thought). But he needed to come up with a better explanation for the injuries than the truth. So he made up the story about rescuing his 7-year-old nephew from drowning.
Shaw tells Plaschke that he thought the lie would hold up and, more important, could live only inside Heritage Hall. When USC's sports information department decided, understandably, to put out a news item explaining the reason for Shaw's injury, it once again gave Shaw the chance to recant. He didn't.
You know the rest: story went viral, Shaw lied to Sarkisian, questions remained from school officials and, eventually, Shaw came clean.
"It gets harder and harder to keep up with lie after lie after lie … the timeline wasn't right ... everything was off ... but I was still lying," Shaw said. "I thought I was in way too deep."
Shaw has stayed away from team activities ever since, even though Sarkisian said in September that he would be welcomed back to the team (Shaw appeared on Thursday's game program, which was printed before the season). He is medically cleared but remains sidelined as school and police investigate the situation. After a police report is filed, USC will conduct its own investigation.
USC has three games left, including the regular-season finale against Notre Dame at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Time is running out, but should Shaw be allowed to suit up one more time for the Trojans?
Yes. But only if what he said about The Lie -- namely that he never became violent with Chilton -- is proven true. The two "adamantly deny" that the argument became physical still live together in the apartment where the incident occurred.
Shaw sounds like a good guy who did a bad, stupid thing by repeatedly lying, and has suffered for it. But he had a strong track record before the incident. He appears remorseful in Plaschke's piece.
There are far worse characters in college football than Josh Shaw, ones who continue to play every Saturday. Second chances are rewarded to athletes who commit more egregious offenses.
So if things check out with the investigations, Shaw should return to the field before the season is done.
Florida State the new Quarterback U?
Whatever you think of Jameis Winston, the Florida State quarterback will leave a production void when he leaves Tallahassee, likely after this season. But the Seminoles are well prepared for life after Jameis. They received a verbal commitment Thursday from quarterback recruit Malik Henry, the top prospect in the 2016 class. Florida State already has commitments from two ESPN 300 quarterbacks in the 2015 class, Deondre Francois and De'Andre Johnson. Like Winston, Henry also intends to play baseball at Florida State and said he's fine with the inevitable comparisons to Winston.
Florida State has a storied tradition at several position groups, but the Seminoles are building quite the pipeline under center through recruiting.
Around the nation
- Trevor Knight's injury sounds really bad -- transient quadriplegia, according to The Oklahoman -- but it shouldn't keep the Sooners quarterback out too long.
- It's a new day and a new Mississippi State team, George Schroeder writes.
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Dave Brandon had no previous experience working in college sports when Michigan hired him as its athletic director in 2010. He was a businessman, most famously as leader of the Domino's Pizza chain.
He set about trying to run the Wolverines' athletic department like a business, which in many ways, of course, it is. But Brandon's tenure also reflected some of the worst tendencies of modern American corporate culture: the incessant focus on short-term profits over long-term loyalty, viewing customers as revenue streams and beating people over the head with marketing and "branding."
We could go over Brandon's many missteps -- the revelation of his incredibly tone-deaf emails to fans this week likely serving as the last straw for school president Mark Schlissel and the board of regents -- but in the end, it's pretty simple. Whether you work on Wall Street or State Street, any CEO's job depends on the bottom line. Brandon's fate wasn't sealed by a quarterly finance report, but by his football team's inability to play competently for four quarters under Brady Hoke.
But the Wolverines couldn't move on from the Hoke era without first getting rid of the man who hired him. Brandon no longer had enough support or credibility to make the next major football decision. Dream candidates like Jim Harbaugh or Les Miles or really any other established head coach would have steered well clear of Ann Arbor if it meant working under Brandon and in the toxic atmosphere around him.
Brandon has long been viewed as a meddling AD who liked the spotlight; the former benchwarmer under Bo Schembechler had some definite Jerry Jones traits when it came to inserting himself into the football operations, so a low-key coach like Hoke was a good fit for him. The past few seasons have shown that the Michigan job is probably too big for Hoke, and no alpha-dog coach would want to deal with Brandon's interference. Even the Big House doesn't have enough room for two giant egos.
The timing of Friday's announcement should allow Hoke to finish out the season as coach. The Wolverines can take a month or so to hire the right athletic director, whether that is someone with Michigan ties like UConn's Warde Manuel, Boston College's Brad Bates or Arkansas' Jeff Long, or one who is not a "Michigan Man." Schlissel has only been school president for a little more than three months, and he won't and shouldn't be beholden to finding an AD who can play the six-degrees-of-Schembechler game.
The next athletic director's first agenda item will likely be the most important one he or she will ever make, as the Maize and Blue can't afford to whiff on a third straight football coaching hire. The next AD would also be wise to learn from Brandon's mistakes and listen to what Wolverines fans want, though that doesn't have to mean retreating into the tradition-worshiping navel-gazing that has hamstrung this program at times.
Michigan is too big to fail. Or at least it should be. Maybe Brandon could have survived the football setback had he not alienated so many people in the process. But CEOs are always slaves to their bottom line, and Michigan football is a stock that has bottomed out. This is the first step back up.
Adam Rittenberg: Purdue will pace Nebraska well into the second half.
This isn't a knock on the Huskers, who are quietly putting together a very solid, and refreshingly drama-free, season. But Purdue's offense is hitting its stride behind quarterback Austin Appleby, speed backs Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert and a much-improved offensive line. The Boilers have had two weeks to prepare and face a Nebraska defense that still has too many technical breakdowns for my liking. This will be a track meet for two, maybe three quarters -- thinking 28-24 Nebraska at halftime -- before Ameer Abdullah and Nebraska pull away in the fourth.
Mitch Sherman: Wisconsin will make its biggest statement yet.
The Badgers served notice to the rest of the West last week with a 52-7 win over Maryland that they’ve turned a corner. Still, it was one game. It was at home, and we’ve seen previous flashes from Wisconsin. But with most of the attention focused on the exploits of Melvin Gordon and uncertainty at QB, the Wisconsin defense has built a résumé as the Big Ten’s best. Now, with Joel Stave back in command, the Badgers will streamroll Rutgers, beat up at QB and elsewhere after trips to Ohio State and Nebraska, and enter the final four weeks as the favorite in the West despite that ugly Northwestern loss.
Brian Bennett: Northwestern and Iowa will head to overtime. Again.
Just like last year in Iowa City, the Wildcats and Hawkeyes will play to a draw in regulation. They're similar teams, with good defenses and running games but who struggle to score at times. Justin Jackson and Mark Weisman will each find the end zone twice as the teams go into overtime tied at 20. Northwestern makes one more play in the second extra period to win it.
Austin Ward: Tevin Coleman will be held in check.
The Indiana tailback wasn’t getting all that much support from the passing game even when Nate Sudfeld was healthy and that didn’t slow him down even against stout rush defenses. But with the attack even more one-dimensional now, his string of 100-yard outings is going to come to an end on the road against Michigan and a defense allowing just 3.1 yards per carry. That’s about the only thing the Wolverines do well at this point, and any chance of salvaging something positive out of this season for Brady Hoke’s club will require coming out inspired to take care of Indiana. That’s yet another sign of how bad things are at Michigan, but there is a talented, proud defense waiting for a chance to do something nobody else has done yet this season.
Dan Murphy: Ohio State hits 60 points for the second time this season.
Any chances of the Buckeyes looking ahead to the Michigan State next weekend were knocked out after the close call in Happy Valley. J.T. Barrett will be back in his comfort zone at home and looking to pick a part the Fighting Illini defense. Ohio State hung 66 points on Kent State earlier this year. While Saturday might not be quite as big of a blowout, the Buckeyes will get to 60 for the second year in a row against Illinois.
Josh Moyer: Penn State hits its highest rushing total of the Big Ten season.
OK, maybe this is a bit of a gamble considering that left tackle Donovan Smith -- the only returning starter on the line this season -- suffered an injury Saturday, and his status is unknown against Maryland. But the Nittany Lions fared better than I expected against Ohio State, and the offensive line has a much easier test against the Terrapins. Only 17 teams in the nation are faring worse in run defense than than the Terps, so we should see a healthy dose of Penn State speedsters Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch. James Franklin has vowed to keep running the ball, and I think that strategy finally pays off this weekend.
The College Football Playoff selection committee began deliberations on Monday in Grapevine, Texas. Tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET, Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long will unveil to a most curious audience the first-ever CFP rankings.
It's a historic time -- and surely chaotic.
Marc Tracy of the New York Times, in assessing the moment, writes that “historians will most likely date the end of the era of good feelings to 7:31.”
With that in mind, some advice for fans from the Big Ten to the SEC:
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A familiar pattern of bravado followed by butt-kicking followed by bumbling explanations unfolded this weekend on Michigan’s trip to East Lansing. Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden drove a tent stake into Michigan State’s turf shortly before the Spartans commenced a 35-11 beatdown of their rivals, their sixth win in the seven years since Michigan’s Michael Hart called them “little brother.”
Hoke said he wasn’t fully aware of what happened after the game Saturday night. He apologized on Sunday, and on Monday said the whole thing was “overblown” and he didn’t think it was another example of the disrespect that Mark Dantonio and the Spartans have complained about since Hart’s comments.
“[It] had nothing to do with Michigan State. It had to do with a commitment for our football team,” Hoke said. “No one feels worse than Joe. That wasn’t the intent.”
If that’s true, then add one more tone deaf communication failure to the year of mismanaged messages for Michigan. The program and its head coach seem hopelessly tangled up in trying to figure out how to act like “Michigan Men” in unfamiliar territory.
This time, though, Hoke shouldn’t be the only one to take the blame for the egg left on Michigan’s face. He did, of course, because that’s what head coaches are wont to do. But the current state of the mitten state rivalry, summed up neatly by Saturday’s events, isn’t Hoke’s doing. It’s another symptom of a problem that existed before he arrived and won’t be weeded out simply by hiring someone new to take his place.
Hoke isn’t absolved of all sins here. He hasn’t done much to stem the sense of entitlement most of the college football world sees when it looks at Michigan these days. He has been borderline delusional when asked about where his program stands at different points this season. His status as a Michigan Man -- the holier than thou title that no longer carries the connotation that Bo Schembechler intended -- was a big reason why he was hired in the first place.
While Hoke didn’t create the problems, his fault lies in failing to fix them, or even trying to fix them.
Michigan State’s players say they have always felt the upturned noses in Ann Arbor. It started for them while they were being recruited in high school, before Hoke’s staff arrived. Senior linebacker Taiwan Jones, a native Michigander, said the message sunk in further during his first game against the Wolverines in 2011.
“You come out at warm-ups and you hear them talking. You can feel the arrogance,” he said.
Given the recent evidence -- driving a stake into Michigan State’s turf and staring down the opposing sideline as a 17-point underdog -- it’s hard to argue with Jones’ assessment.
It wasn’t a tent stake that put Dantonio in a vindictive mood Saturday night. It was the long string of perceived slights that outdate both him and Hoke between the two schools. When asked Monday if he sees any signs of that disrespect, Hoke simply said: “No.”
Hoke can’t fix a problem that he doesn’t think exists. No one else at Michigan seems aware of an entitlement issue either, or at least no one is willing to say so publicly. Former Wolverines coach Rich Rodriguez had the audacity to suggest some changes might be in order, and he was escorted out of town after three year short years.
For a team that consistently recruits blue-chip talent and then gets bullied by the players they passed on, isn’t it worth considering that Dantonio might have a point? To turn a blind ear to a suggestion from the Rose Bowl champs seems like just another example of the arrogance that got Michigan State so riled up in the first place.
None of Hoke’s bosses have talked to him about his future at Michigan yet this year, but all signs point to a change in the near future. If that happens, the man who takes his place will have to wage war against the heavy weight of Michigan’s tradition. Unless the institution around him is willing to change, it’s hard to believe anyone will have success in that fight.
Michigan State was getting casual.
The Spartans were winning Big Ten games, just as they had in 2013, but not with their standard precision and 60-minute focus. A near blown lead against Nebraska. Poor decisions from players and coaches against Purdue. A sloppy first half at Indiana.
Other than a fleeting moment against Nebraska -- when Huskers receiver Alonzo Moore nearly corralled a touchdown in the final minute -- the Spartans never looked like they actually might lose. But they didn't look right, either. They seemed to be losing their edge.
Well, it's back. MSU can thank in-state rival Michigan for restoring it just in time.
The decision by Wolverines players -- I believe coach Brady Hoke when he says he had no involvement -- to drive a stake into the field at Spartan Stadium before Saturday's game lit the fuse for MSU coach Mark Dantonio and his team. After all they had done since Mike Hart's "Little Brother" comment in 2007 -- a 5-1 mark against Michigan, a 63-24 record overall, an outright Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl championship, and another shared Big Ten title -- the Spartans were still being shown up on their home field.
Maybe Michigan's act was more about itself than its opponent. Pardon the pun, but the Wolverines' disintegrating season was at stake Saturday. Michigan's recent losses to MSU stem from inferior talent development, coaching and execution, but the Wolverines also haven't matched the Spartans' intensity. The staking was intended to stoke the Maize and Blue.
Despite a few errors, MSU bullied Michigan again. And with a chance to kneel on the ball or score another touchdown in the closing seconds, MSU left its starters in and rubbed Michigan's nose in the end zone dirt.
"Just felt like we needed to put a stake in them at that point," Dantonio said after the 35-11 win.
The line was vintage Dantonio: premeditated and purposeful, smart and succinct, delivered with the trademark scowl on the outside but probably a small smile within. He paused for effect, then moments later addressed "the little brother stuff, all the disrespect" in a candid post-game session with reporters.
"Throwing the stake down in our back yard out here and coming out there like they're all that," he said. "It got shoved up ..."
Dantonio trailed off, but he made his point. We all know exactly where it got shoved.
Some teams are at their best when calm and cool. Dantonio and the Spartans are at their best when PO'd. Michigan's stake-and-shake sharpened Michigan State's focus.
The Spartans were supposed to beat Michigan. They have superior talent and coaching. But another watered-down win would have left an empty feeling before a two-week prep for the Ohio State showdown.
Instead, they recorded their most lopsided win against Michigan since 1967.
"We had enough emotion to carry us, but we also need to stay fresh and always need to bring our emotions to a football game," Dantonio said Sunday night. "That's sort of been a trademark of who we've become."
They had veered from their trademarks early in Big Ten play. Too many technical breakdowns on defense, too many risky throws by Connor Cook and even a poorly timed and executed fake punt attempt by Dantonio. And a casual attitude.
While MSU hiccuped, Ohio State had been punishing its opponents behind blossoming quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Nov. 8 narrative subtly shifted. An Ohio State win in Spartan Stadium, where the home side hasn't lost since 2012, began to look more plausible.
Then Saturday happened. The Spartans regained their swagger. Ohio State squandered a 17-0 halftime lead at Penn State and was extremely fortunate to win in two overtimes. Some who might have been leaning OSU might now be leaning MSU.
The Spartans shouldn't expect Ohio State to pull a similar pre-game stunt Nov. 8, nor should they expect the emotion from Saturday to carry them through the next 12 days. But the Michigan game reminded the Spartans of who they are and how they must play as the stakes get much, much higher.
"November ... defines you," Dantonio said Sunday. "We've got an off week, so we should be able to get fresh emotionally and fresh physically and have some additional time to work on Ohio State.
"There will be no excuses. We'll be ready to play."
Remember when MSU used to pull silly stunts like Michigan did? It used to be a silly program with a silly coach.
MSU is now an elite program with an elite coach. But this Spartans team hadn't looked elite until Saturday.
They needed a spark. Linebacker Joe Bolden and his Michigan teammates provided it.
MSU now can get back to its high-stakes mission: winning another championship.
Michigan State gets to keep the Paul Bunyan trophy and bragging rights for another season.
The Spartans (7-1) beat in-state rival Michigan 35-11 on Saturday in a performance that looked like an absent-minded bulldozer slowly rolling over an injured animal. It wasn't particularly fast or flashy, but the end result -- a flattened Wolverine team -- never seemed to be in doubt.
Connor Cook and the country's third best scoring offense didn't dazzle. Cook (12-of-22 for 227 yards) connected with Tony Lippett on a 70-yard scoring play on a day that was otherwise relatively slow. His counterpart, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner, threw two interceptions and fumbled once to kill any real chance his team might have had of hanging around.
Michigan drops to 3-5 with the loss and 1-6 against one of its biggest rivals since Lloyd Carr retired seven years ago.
How the game was won: The formula for success in East Lansing didn't change much from Michigan State's win a year ago. The Spartans held Michigan to fewer than 200 total yards of offense. The Wolverines rushing attack produced zero yards in the first half and continued its steady implosion in the game's final 30 minutes. Michigan State's offense wasn't at its best Saturday, but it didn't need to be.
Game ball goes to: Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford had three rushing touchdowns and 195 all-purpose yards. He trudged his way through most of his 33 carries until breaking loose late in the first half. He contributed 48 of the 73 yards on an efficient scoring drive that helped the Spartans close the half with a 14-3 lead. Langford has quietly rushed for at least 100 yards in five straight games.
What it means: Was this the last straw for Brady Hoke’s tenure in Ann Arbor? You could make the argument it’s just adding to a haystack that engulfed the camel long ago. Michigan will have to win its next three to become bowl eligible before the regular-season finale against Ohio State.
Playoff implications: Michigan State remains a contender with a survive-and-advance victory, though it didn’t stack up many style points against the Wolverines. Crazy things can happen in rivalry games, and the Spartans managed to avoid any season-stunting mishaps. Heading into November, they’re still contenders.
Best play: Lippett's ninth touchdown reception of the season delivered a knockout punch to Michigan midway through the third quarter. Cook threw a back-shoulder dart to Lippett, who spun Michigan safety Delano Hill in a circle. One quick stop-and-start move gave the senior receiver a clear path down the sideline. The one-play drive gave the Spartans a 28-3 lead.
What's next: The Spartans get a week off to prepare for the Big Ten’s biggest matchup before the championship game. They host Ohio State on Nov. 8 with first place in the East Division likely on the line. Michigan returns home next weekend to take on an Indiana team that is coming off its bye week.
Before Saturday's in-state rivalry matchup between Michigan and Michigan State, a banner was spotted in the East Lansing sky.
So, this is flying over Spartan stadium. pic.twitter.com/KZlouM7McI— Eric Upchurch (@EUpchurchPhoto) October 25, 2014
As students poured in to prepare for the game, it became apparent that #KeepBradyHoke was a coordinated effort. The front row of the student section literally spelled it out for us.
Here's a look, straight from Michigan State football's official Twitter account.
Brash move, "Little Brother." The Spartans are 17-point favorites, the biggest spread they've ever had against the Wolverines.
On the other, only one of the conference's five games is expected to be close. Four of the underdogs are picked to lose by double digits this week, and the closest game isn't exactly a hot ticket: Minnesota at Illinois.
For the first time all season, we Big Ten writers all picked the same winners. But will there be an upset? Can someone surprise in the Big Ten? Let's take a closer look at the matchups:
Minnesota (6-1) at Illinois (3-4), ESPNU: The Gophers are still fighting for respect, as they appear at No. 24 in the USA Today poll -- but they're still left out of the Associated Press' top 25. They've quietly put together a solid season, with their only loss coming against TCU, and running back David Cobb could be the most underrated player in the conference. Illinois coach Tim Beckman is fighting for his job, and he and his offensive coordinator can't even seem to agree on whether a two-quarterback system is best for the team. The Illini have a plethora of defensive problems, and they can't afford to have their offense stumble.
Maryland (5-2) at Wisconsin (4-2), BTN: Melvin Gordon is one of the most dynamic backs in all of college football, and the Terrapins are one of the worst rushing defenses in all of college football. That's not exactly a recipe for success for the Terps. That being said, Wisconsin's woes through the air have been well-documented, and it would be no surprise to see the Terps dare Wisconsin to throw. Randy Edsall needs to get his own house in order, too. Maryland has a lot of firepower on offense, but C.J. Brown needs to find more consistency for this team to hang with the Badgers. Backup Caleb Rowe is out for the season, so it's Brown or bust. And Brown has thrown three picks to zero touchdowns in the last two games.
Rutgers (5-2) at Nebraska (6-1), ESPN2: The Scarlet Knights just can't catch a break with their schedule. They were dismantled by Ohio State 56-17 on Saturday and they play Wisconsin next week. Rutgers was the surprise team of the conference in the first half of the season, but it will have to show something in this second half to retain that title. It won't be easy. Like the Buckeyes, Nebraska boasts a balanced offense -- and Ameer Abdullah is the best back the Knights have seen since ... well ... it's been years. With one Big Ten loss already, Nebraska can't afford a slip-up. But it might just have the most talented team, overall, in the West.
Michigan (3-4) at Michigan State (6-1), ABC: Since 2008, this rivalry has basically been owned by the Spartans. Mark Dantonio's team has won five out of the last six, with the Wolverines winning only once in a 12-10 game in 2012. Michigan is coming off a bye week -- and actually won its last Big Ten game, against Penn State -- but the Spartans are on another level. If U-M can pull off this upset, maybe Brady Hoke has an outside chance to save his job and the Wolverines really have sparked a turnaround. If not, expect the same Michigan storyline that you've heard since Week 2.
Ohio State (5-1) at Penn State (4-2), ABC: The Buckeyes have scored at least 50 points in four straight games, but they haven't faced a defense quite like Penn State's. On the flip side, the Nittany Lions haven't faced any offense resembling Ohio State's, either. The key to an upset here is two-fold: Penn State's weak offensive line must somehow keep one of the nation's best front fours at bay (unlikely), or Penn State's defense has to play out of its mind and force turnovers (more likely). Ohio State pounded Penn State 63-14 last season, and the Lions would like nothing more than to avenge the worst loss in program history since 1899 (a 64-5 loss to Duquesne). This game will act as a good measuring stick for both J.T. Barrett and the PSU defense.
The standout individual effort by Funchess gave the Wolverines their longest completion of the year and the longest play of any kind since a season-opening drubbing of Appalachian State. As much trouble as Michigan’s offense has had with turnovers and finding a steady run game this season, it’s had an equally difficult time coming up with the type of big plays that can mask those inconsistencies.
Michigan’s bye week after seven straight games provided Hoke and his 3-4 team with an overdue opportunity to get healthy and evaluate themselves. Beating Penn State the previous Saturday allowed him to go through that process with less pressure and fewer questions about his future.
With in-state rival Michigan State next on the schedule and Ohio State looming a month later, the recalibrations Hoke and his staff make this week have the potential to save their jobs in Ann Arbor or provide the final nail in the coffin of their Michigan coaching careers. This week Hoke is attempting to land on the right side of the fine line that separates making improvements and overwhelming your team by tinkering too much.
“At times you say, ‘We need to add this,’ and then you add too much. Then you have a real problem,” Hoke said. “For us, it’s going back to what we want to be identity-wise, and we want to run the football.”
The run, Michigan hopes, will set up its dynamic offensive players with more chances to produce game-changing plays. Through seven games, the Wolverines have picked up 30 or more yards on a single play six times, fewer than all but four teams in the bowl subdivision this season. The only offensive category where they’ve struggled more is in turnover margin, where they rank dead last.
Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said big chunk gains usually come from exploiting an opponent’s weakest points or putting your best playmakers in a position to excel. Three of those long plays came from sophomore running back Derrick Green, who is sidelined for the rest of the season with a broken collarbone. The onus in Green’s absence falls even more squarely on the shoulders of Funchess and Gardner, the senior quarterback who has looked like more of an offensive threat in his two most recent games.
“I get the ball every play so it’s pretty much all my responsibility,” Gardner said. “Even if it’s a big run play for our running backs, I’ve got to hand it to them. I feel like I’m a big part of that.”
Gardner has the potential to create a few of those plays with his feet, but his best bet is to connect with his favorite target, the 6-foot-5 Funchess. He leads the team with 36 receptions and four touchdowns, but three of those came against Appalachian State.
Funchess battled a leg injury during most of September, making his highlight-reel return to the end zone against Penn State a beacon of hope that more spectacular efforts might be coming now that he’s healthy. Nussmeier knows Michigan has to find ways to get the ball in his hands.
“We’re always looking for ways to [create good match-ups],” he said. “Without giving away too much scheme stuff, we evaluated that very hard during the bye week and looked at ways to do that better.”
The Spartans, for all of their prowess on defense, have been burned by the long ball several times this season. They’ve surrendered at least 30 yards on 19 different plays this season, which ranks them 103rd in the nation in that category. The miscues have come against competition that ranges from Oregon to Eastern Michigan.
Michigan enters Saturday’s rivalry game as a double-digit underdog. The line against the Buckeyes later this season should be equally lopsided. The Wolverines likely need to win at least one of those games if Hoke is going to return in 2015. One tried-and-true way to pull off an upset -- especially with a defense that has held its own this season -- is with a few big plays.