Saturday, November 10, 2007

If Michigan Loses an Irrelevant Game, Does It Matter? Yes.

The University of Michigan's football team lost for the first time this afternoon since Big Ten play started, falling short against Wisconsin, 31-21. Of course, Michigan was without their best player for the entire game (running back Mike Hart) and their starting quarterback (Chad Henne) for all but the first two series of the game, and Michigan can still win the Big Ten, go to the Rose Bowl, and, perhaps most importantly, ruin Ohio State's perfect season and chance at a national championship by winning next week, at home, against the Buckeyes. So given all of that, did this loss mean anything? Yes. It means something for next week and it might mean something for next year.

The problems the game poses for this season first, as while the offense (and we'll get to true freshman Ryan Mallett's play in a moment) was shaky all day, the defense was the real story. Yes, they tightened up in the second half, and gave Michigan a chance to win, but that was only after one of the worst first halves I've seen from the Michigan defense this year. Stupid penalties by Shawn Crable. The inability to get to the quarterback and the inability to cover wide receivers. And worst of all, the inability to just tackle. That first half was dominated by Wisconsin breaking tackles, or, as the case more often, senior quarterback Tyler Donovan eluding Michigan tacklers, as the Badgers built a 16-point advantage (which ended up being the margin of victory).

Offensively, Michigan was offense, which freshman Ryan Mallett completing just 11 of 36 passes and while he had a couple of nice touchdown tosses, he also had two interceptions. Many of Mallett's throws were over the heads of the wide receivers or at their feet, and if it wasn't for Mario Manningham taking a short throw 97-yards for a touchdowns, Mallett's stats would look even more anemic. The running game was no better, combining for just 47 total yards, and neither the running backs, nor the offensive line could get anything going against Wisconsin's defensive front. It is a game worth forgetting, almost immediately.

But, despite the game having no impact on Michigan's chances to win the Big Ten or go to the Rose Bowl, it is important. Because, as bad as the defense played, it gives you no confidence they'll be able to look any better against Ohio State last weekend. We may have been missing Hart and Henne on offense, but on defense, for better or worse (and it's looking very much like the latter) this is the Michigan defense that will take the field next Saturday against the Buckeyes. And if they play like they did today, Michigan Stadium will be emptied out at halftime. And the game is important as a preview of what Michigan fans will see next year. No Hart. No Henne. Ryan Mallett will be throwing the football and Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor will be running it, and they showed nothing today which gives you a good feeling about 2008, when the Wolverines must play at Notre Dame, at Penn State, and at the Horseshoe in Ohio State. And potentially, some of his wide receivers could go pro as well.

Now, you hope that Mallett improves, and once he knows more of the offense, gets more reps in practices, and matures, there is every reason to believe he will be better. But, it may be a rough transition from Henne-to-Mallett, and despite Mallett's impressive pedigree, it may take him a while to grow into the leader of the Michigan football team. His play this year, despite being shaky, should aid him in understanding what it's like to play somewhere as hostile as Camp Randall stadium, and should speed his development. But, as we saw today, he has a long way to go.

Michigan has faced a lot of adversity this season, a lot of it self inflicted, a lot of it due to injuries beyond their direct control. After losing their first two games of the season, Michigan responded, with eight straight victories. They must respond again next week to salvage their season, as if they end their year the same way they started it (with back-to-back losses) nobody will remember the good things Michigan did in the middle of the season, and nobody will ever let Chad Henne, Mike Hart, and Jake Long live down an 0-4 record against Ohio State.

10:40 Update: So Ohio State lost too. Awesome. As much as I usually would take great joy in seeing Ohio State get upset, their loss, coupled with Michigan's earlier in the day, certainly takes all the air out of next week's finale. Sure, it's still the biggest rivalry in (college) sports, and sure, it's still for the Big Ten Title and a trip to the Rose Bowl, but suddenly, the game just doesn't have the same intrigue it did twelve hours ago.

Add To: Digg! Reddit Del.Icio.Us Stumble


Greg_Cruey said...

I don't think any game is irrelevant when pride is on the line. As an SEC fan it was nice to see both Michigan and Ohio State go down on the same day...


© New Blogger Templates | Webtalks