Witch Hunts, Shoelaces, and Turnovers: Michigan Football '09 (Part I: Review)

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Witch Hunts, Shoelaces, and Turnovers: Michigan Football '09 (Part I: Review)
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As the 130th season of Michigan football comes to an end, it’s time to reflect on what we saw and look forward to next year and beyond.

2009 yielded some highlights and some lowlights, some controversy and some challenged loyalty. A legend was made and some buds blossomed. Records fell, both good and bad, and a system started to show some promise.

No one knew what to expect from this year’s version of Michigan football in Rich Rodriguez’s second year at the helm.

The overly optimistic among us predicted a breakout season of nine or ten wins.

Realistic optimists pointed to Rodriguez’s penchant for second-year turnarounds and predicted a record of 7-5 or maybe, if luck goes the way of the maize and blue, 8-4.

Realists pointed to the true freshmen quarterbacks and lack of overall talent on the squad and predicted a 5-7 or 6-6 finish.

As it turns out, the realists were right, but the realistic optimists weren’t too far off. A 5-7 season should have been 7-5 without the epic collapses against Illinois and Purdue. But that's what you get with a young and inexperienced team.

The fact of the matter is, Michigan fans were so shell-shocked from the worst record in 46 years in 2008 that we were looking anywhere we could for hope.

We ignored comments that Rodriguez made in the preseason such as, “There’s still going to be some transition. We’re going to play a lot more freshmen and redshirt freshmen than we would like to.”

We thought, sure there will be a lot of freshmen playing, but Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson are surely better options than Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan. Or, yeah, but it can’t get any worse than last season.

In this space, I offered some words of caution: “Coming off a season that resulted in the most losses in school history, and pinning all hopes on a true freshman quarterback, this seems to be the window of opportunity before Rodriguez’s system begins to take hold and terrorize the Big Ten.”

But then I followed it up with an overly ambitious response: “However, I think we’re going to see a very fast, well-conditioned and much-improved Michigan team playing with a chip on its shoulder to avoid being put to rest again.”

While that may have held true for a while, reality eventually sunk in that this team was indeed loaded with youth and razor-thin on the depth chart.

What began in August as optimism and eagerness to forget the epic disaster of 2008, quickly turned to scorn as the Detroit Free Press brought into question allegations of NCAA infractions on the part of Rodriguez and his coaching staff.

The opening game against Western Michigan couldn’t come soon enough.

We cursed Michael Rosenberg and Mark Snyder for the timing of their article and the witch-hunt that ensued and we promised to get revenge on Justin Boren, who transferred to Ohio State, for his comments that seemed to be the centerpiece of that article.

And then the season began and practice time was forgotten and the story of Shoelace became one we would hear every game the entire season (as my wife would roll her eyes every time the announcers felt compelled to tell the story of why Denard Robinson doesn’t tie his shoes...every...single...game).

Robinson thrilled us with a 43-yard touchdown run , Tate Forcier showed promise in his first game by throwing for three touchdowns, Junior Hemingway caught nearly half his season total in receiving yards (103) and all of his touchdowns (two), and the defense shut down what many thought would be a high-powered offense.

We saw a show of solidarity for Rodriguez, Michigan won easily, and the season started off with a bang.

Then came Notre Dame, fresh off of throttling Nevada, and riding preseason BCS bowl (or national championship game ) predictions.

This will go down as the game that raised all of our expectations, mostly because no one knew at that time how mediocre Notre Dame really was.

It appeared to be Rodriguez’s signature win, as Michigan matched Notre Dame score-for-score and Forcier stunned the 18th-ranked Irish with 11 seconds left.

Forcier looked as veteran and composed as ND junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen, completing 23-of-33 for 240 yards and three touchdowns (one rushing). It’s hard to imagine that that would be the high point of his season, in just his second collegiate game.

Of course, there was also the Armando Allen out-of-bounds play, which, despite the evidence , Notre Dame fans will carry to their graves in contempt.

The win over Notre Dame vaulted Michigan into the Top 25 heading into week three against Eastern Michigan.

Former Michigan defensive coordinator Ron English brought his Eagles to Ann Arbor and didn’t provide much of a test.

Michigan showed off its running game this time, going for 380 yards on the ground, and getting 163 yards and two touchdowns on just eight carries from Carlos Brown in the first half alone.

Robinson scored two more touchdowns to enhance the unrealistic expectations for a guy that arrived on campus less than two months earlier.

Michigan then opened the Big Ten slate with Indiana in what would eventually be the battle for last place. At the time, though, Michigan was hoping to get to 4-0 heading into its intrastate rivalry battle in East Lansing.

This game provided our first glimpse of what the rest of the season would hold, as Michigan struggled to beat the Hoosiers, needing a 26-yard touchdown pass from Forcier to Martavious Odoms with 2:29 remaining to get the win.

The Indiana victory prompted me to draw a comparison to the New York Jets, who like Michigan, started off hot with a rookie quarterback: “Following Sunday’s Jets-Titans game, Vic Carucci of NFL.com asked Jets safety Kerry Rhodes if he thought the Jets’ style of play was sustainable. Rhodes replied that he thought it was because having such a good defense allows rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez to make some mistakes.

“Unfortunately, that won’t exactly translate to Michigan. While I think Michigan’s offense is further along in its development than Sanchez’s Jets offense, relatively speaking, Michigan hasn’t faced its toughest opponents yet.”

I provided the last part of that quote because I knew we were in for a tough go the rest of the season. I didn’t know, however, that that would be our last win over a FBS team all season. Ironically, Michigan’s fall has mirrored the Jets’ collapse.

At 4-0, a return to a bowl game looked assured, and Michigan entered “Little Brother” week seeking to avenge last season’s 35-21 loss to Michigan State.

It was the first road game of Forcier’s career and we saw the first true test of the season, as the Michigan offense was shut down much of the game.

But Forcier continued his early-season magic, leading a 14-point comeback to force overtime with a touchdown completion to Roy Roundtree with just two seconds left.

In overtime, Forcier was intercepted on a tipped pass that never should have been thrown, and Michigan dropped its second in a row to Michigan State for the first time since 1967.

Michigan Streaks Broken in 2009
First back-to-back losses to Michigan State since 1967
First home loss to Penn State since 1996
First home loss to Purdue in last 17 meetings
First back-to-back losing seasons since 1963-62

This began a run of snapping streaks right and left.

With its first loss of the season under its belt, Michigan traveled to Iowa for a prime-time night game against the nation’s 12th-ranked Hawkeyes.

Brandon Minor had his breakout game of the season, scoring two touchdowns against a defense that hadn’t given up a rushing touchdown in 33 quarters.

The game started out as well as one could ask, as Donovan Warren picked off the first pass of the game and returned it for a touchdown.

Michigan hung around until a muffed punt (hello 2008!) gave Iowa the ball at the Michigan 16. Iowa punched it in and took a 30-21 lead.

Robinson led the offense down the field for a touchdown to narrow the gap, but on the next possession, threw an interception to end the game, beginning the Wolverine faithful’s love-hate relationship with Denard.

Despite a second-straight loss, Michigan fans were encouraged that the team was able to hang with undefeated Iowa until the last minute of the game, and a return to the Big House to face an FCS school was just what Michigan needed to regroup.

Michigan was able to set numerous school records in the win over Delaware State that week and give many starters a week off.

Five Wolverines scored their first career touchdowns and Robinson was able to get a lot of work at quarterback. Michigan fans even got the treat of seeing Nick Sheridan on the field without the game on the line.

Many fans didn’t like the idea of playing an FCS school, but following the game, I proclaimed, “I have no problem with Michigan playing Delaware State this year. With a roster comprised of mostly underclassmen, and a complete overhaul in progress, playing an FCS opponent was better than a bye week in my opinion.

Michigan Records Set vs. Delaware State
727 total yards of offense
442 yards in the first half
28 points in the first quarter (ties record)
57 point margin of victory (most since 58-0 win over Indiana on Oct. 14, 2000)
461 rushing yards (most since 480 vs. Iowa on Oct. 3, 1992)
49 first half points (most since 55 vs. Chicago on Oct. 21, 1939)

“I would love to see Michigan start scheduling another tough out-of-conference game every year, but at this point in the development of Rich Rodriguez’s scheme, it’s not time for that just yet.

“Once the team grows up and the spread-n-shred is fully ingrained, I hope the schedule will be strengthened. But when you have Florida, arguably the nation’s top team and reigning national champion, playing Charleston Southern, Troy and Florida International, one must look that way first before pointing fingers at the baby Wolverines.”

I still believe it was okay to play Delaware State this season, but obviously with the way Michigan finished the season the benefits weren’t as great as I thought.

At 5-2, Michigan looked primed to make a bowl game, needing just one more win in its final five games.

Penn State came to town and dominated Michigan, racking up 396 yards of offense, and handing Michigan its first true beating of the season.

For really the first time all season, Forcier looked like a true freshman, completing just 13-of-30 passes for 140 yards. The offense couldn’t get anything going in the cold, rainy conditions.

Michigan wasn’t expected to win this one, and despite the 25-point whooping, I considered this result somewhat of a fluke and still didn’t believe the team was as bad as the final record would eventually indicate.

Following the Penn State game, doomsday headlines abounded, and I cautioned fans not to listen to them . As it turns out, they were right.

Michigan traveled to Champaign, Ill. next for a match-up with 1-6 Illinois; a game that looked like a sure-win.

This one will forever be remembered as the epic collapse, and probably the turning point of the whole season. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bigger turnaround before.

Michigan was firmly in control with a 13-7 lead and first and goal at the Illinois one-yard line in the third quarter. After stuffing Michigan on four straight rushes, Illinois took possession and seized the game.

Six plays later, a 70-yard touchdown run put Illinois ahead 14-13, and they never looked back, out-scoring Michigan 24-0 the rest of the way.

At this point in the season, confidence in getting back to a bowl game turned into hoping to squeeze out a win in one of the final three games. The best hope was the following week against Purdue.

Perhaps hope is the wrong word against Purdue, as Boilermaker head coach Danny Hope carried a grudge into the game, blaming Rodriguez for getting one of his players suspended for a game earlier in the season – never mind that the player deserved to be suspended just as much as Michigan linebacker Jonas Mouton did the week before that.

This game was much like the Illinois game, where Michigan was in control and let it get away.

Michigan led 24-10 at halftime and pushed it to 30-17 in the third, but a 91-yard touchdown drive, an on-side kick, and a 54-yard touchdown pass later, and Michigan found itself trailing 31-30.

Michigan missed a 43-yard field goal and failed to convert a two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game, and Michigan fell by two.

Michigan traveled to Wisconsin for its final road game of the season, still needing a win to become bowl-eligible.

This game followed the mold of the past couple, as Michigan hung around through three quarters, but faded down the stretch.

Forcier bounced back from some poor outings to complete 20-of-26 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns, but it was the defense that couldn’t hold up against a powerful Wisconsin running game.

Although Michigan knew Wisconsin was going to run it in the second half, it still couldn’t stop the Badgers.

The bowl hopes all came down to the final week of the season against Ohio State, as Michigan looked to end its five game losing streak to the Buckeyes.

Though many around the nation talked of the lack of luster in the rivalry, the game still had plenty of storylines with Michigan needing a win to make a bowl and avoid a second straight losing season, Ohio State needing a win to capture the Big Ten title outright, and Justin Boren playing against his former team in the Big House.

The Michigan defense played inspired and turned in its best performance of the season, holding the Ohio State offense to just 14 points.

However, it was the youth of Michigan’s offensive leader that doomed the Wolverines’ chances of playing through the holidays.

Forcier turned the ball over five times, including a fumble in the end zone on Michigan’s first possession, which Ohio State recovered for a touchdown.

Michigan moved the ball most of the day against an Ohio State defense that ranks as one of the best in the nation. But it was unable to capitalize on trips to the red zone, turning the ball over too many times.

So as Michigan’s season came to an abrupt end for the second year in a row, many want to know where do we go from here?

Indeed, there are many questions that need to be answered, but I’m in the minority who still believes the program is on the right track.

Stay tuned for part two where I will look at the future of the football program, both short-term and long-term, as well as the recruiting class Michigan has coming in and who is still out there that Rodriguez needs to land.

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