Michigan had a chance on Saturday to prove the doubters wrong – to shut up the critics of head coach Rich Rodriguez. Instead, its 35-10 loss to Penn State served only to ramp up the criticism and turn up the heat on Rodriguez.
A quick look around the Internet reveals some very negatively shaded articles about Michigan football. Headlines like, “Who’s to Blame For Michigan’s Downfall?” or “A Blown Opportunity for Rodriguez” or “Safety Responsible for UM Collapse” or “Penn State Dominates Reeling Michigan Football Team,” show either a misconception about this team or a clear bias against its coach.
Let’s all take a deep breath and realize that this team was not expected to challenge for the Big Ten this season. Most knowledgeable Michigan fans predicted a 7-5 finish. Some of the more optimistic fans said 8-4.
There is no downfall, no collapse, no blown opportunity, and this team isn't reeling. It's growing.
After a 4-0 start that included a come-from-behind win over rival Notre Dame, the expectations were immediately, and wrongly, raised. Even after taking Michigan State to overtime and Iowa to the brink, many unfairly praised this team as much farther along than it really is.
But what team can really succeed with a true freshman quarterback?
Some might point to USC and Matt Barkley, but that’s a team that has arguably the best offensive line in the country, and is loaded on the defensive side of the ball.
Some might even say Michigan’s own Chad Henne in 2004, but he had a senior Braylon Edwards to throw to. Edwards caught a school record 97 passes that season for 1,330 yards and 15 touchdowns. Michigan doesn’t have a down-field receiving threat this season.
I’m not saying that a team can’t succeed with a freshman quarterback, but it has to have outstanding play elsewhere to allow for the growing pains. Michigan doesn’t have that this season.
I’m excited for the future of Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson, but we have to be patient. Highlight-reel runs and game-winning drives aren’t going to happen every game.
We knew entering the season that Rodriguez’s offense was going to be a little bit better than last season, but still not where it will be once he gets all the athletes he needs to run it.
The addition of Forcier and Robinson helped take an offense that was virtually non-existent last season to one of the highest scoring offenses in the Big Ten this season.
Just think about how good it will be when these players have another year or two in the offense, and another recruiting class or two comes in.
Defensively, the struggles have been very hard to watch this season, especially since it doesn’t seem to be making much progress throughout the season.
Much has been made about its inability to make big stops, but defensive coordinator Greg Robinson is the third different coordinator in three years, which makes it hard to develop chemistry and consistency.
The defense will remain a frustration for the rest of this season, but should improve along with the offense in the coming years when Rodriguez gets more speed and talent to fit in.
The most important thing for Michigan fans is to not lose faith in the system and growth. We were griping for Lloyd Carr to be replaced because of 8-4 or 7-5 seasons when his teams consistently underachieved. Yet we’re all up in arms when this year’s team, in the second year of a complete overhaul, is on its way to a probable 7-5 season.
Look at it this way: in the last seven years of the Carr era, the offense averaged 30.4 points per game and 400.1 yards of total offense per game. The defense gave up 19.6 points per game and 331.5 total yards per game.
This season, Michigan’s offense is averaging 33.9 points per game and 404.5 total yards, while the defense is giving up 23.5 points and 367.4 yards per game.
Essentially, this year’s offense is better than the seven-year average in points and total offense, while the defense isn’t far behind the seven-year average. This is the best offense we’ve seen in the maize and blue since 2003.
And it’s still considered a rebuilding year!
Imagine what the future holds when Carr’s players move on and Rodriguez’s players step in. That’s not a knock on Carr at all – it’s just a completely different system that needs different types of players.
So while the big loss to Penn State hurts, it was just one game, and Penn State is a very good team. The first four games of the season spoiled us, but we need to keep things in perspective.
Michigan travels to Illinois this weekend to face a 1-6 team, and then hosts a dangerous Purdue team the following week.
While no game is a lock, Illinois should be a win to get Michigan bowl-eligible, and Purdue is also a game Michigan should win.
It should be 7-3 heading into Madison, Wisc., looking to close out the season with an upset over Wisconsin, or Ohio State in the final game.
A 7-5 season is likely, but an upset over Wisconsin or Ohio State would make this team an overachieving one, as opposed to Carr’s underachieving teams that we detested.
Even if Michigan doesn’t pull off an upset, and finishes 7-5, Michigan fans should be content with this season, looking forward to a bowl game and an even more talented and potent team next season.
That’s not exactly easy to swallow—being content with 7-5—but it’s part of the process and it’s something we have to accept.
The future is certainly bright for Rodriguez and the boys in maize and blue. We just have to be patient and let the process unfold.