For Michigan, It’s Now or Never
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 27, 2010
The time is now for Michigan and its coach, Rich Rodriguez, whose two-year stint in Ann Arbor has seen the Wolverines tumble from its lofty perch to the depths of the Big Ten. It’s now or never, in fact, as Rodriguez cannot afford another five-win finish, one spent battling Indiana for the bottom spot in a conference long Michigan’s playground — let alone another season passed watching Ohio State increase the distance between the two long-standing rivals. For Rodriguez, a reputation is on the line. For Michigan, the future of a proud program lies in the balance. Times like these can test a fan base. It’s time to keep the faith.
Believe it or not — and it seems difficult to fathom — Michigan was close in 2010. The Wolverines started 4-0, of course, before back-to-back narrow setbacks in conference play dropped the team to 4-2 entering mid-October. An easy Oct. 17 victory over Delaware State left the Michigan needing only one win over its last five games to earn bowl eligibility. So what happened?
Injuries on defense, most notably. This tested Michigan’s depth, a test the Wolverines failed miserably. Not to say the offense was perfect, nor that the defense is solely to blame for last year’s demise.
After averaging 235 yards rushing per game over its first seven — albeit a total inflated by performances against Eastern Michigan and Delaware State — the Wolverines averaged only 117.8 yards per game on the ground against its final five opponents, including only 151 combined yards rushing against Wisconsin and Ohio State.
The diminished returns in the running game placed increased pressure on quarterback Tate Forcier; while the sophomore has undeniable talents, he was not ready — and may not ever be — to carry this team with his arm. Asked to do so against the Buckeyes, for instance, Forcier averaged 5.5 yards per his 42 attempts while tossing four interceptions. Ohio State had a stout defense, but the point stands. Michigan, as has always been the case, will run to set up the pass. The offense is far too one-dimensional otherwise.
But make no mistake: it was injuries — as well as little depth — that burned Michigan down the stretch. This was particularly the case in the secondary, where Troy Woolfolk’s transition to cornerback cost the Wolverines their most dependable safety in pass coverage. His position change was due partly to injuries, partly to attrition, partly to the often inept play of Michigan’s cornerbacks during the start of Big Ten play. With his move went any semblance of Michigan’s pass defense, with the resulting effect on the rush defense due to overcompensation against the pass.
A lack of depth is also to blame for the second-half collapse. Attrition was an early issue under Rodriguez, but blame must also lie in the relatively bare cupboard — by Michigan’s standards — left by the preceding staff.
For the first time during the Rodriguez era, Michigan will approach the 85-scholarship allotment. This will spell increased depth, for starters. The importance of this cannot be overstated, as illustrated by last season’s weak finish. It will also spell increased competition, particularly in the back seven. Neither Jonas Mouton nor Obi Ezeh should feel secure in their starting roles; neither should safety Jordan Kovacs, though all three will be valuable assets in 2010.
Let’s also acknowledge the fact that Rodriguez has recruited the majority of this team: yes, a few holdovers remain — most in important roles, in fact — but Michigan has a roster predominately composed of underclassmen. By my count, Michigan should have roughly a dozen seniors due to exhaust their eligibility at the end of this season. Again, most of that dozen will serve in key roles.
So what does this all mean? Quite simply, that Michigan will be better. There’s reason to think significantly better, in fact, though not quite ready to break into the top third of the Big Ten. The roster is not quite there — give it another year — but this is deepest team of the Rodriguez era. Team speed has been drastically improved. The defense should not, barring injury, suffer another extended period of ineffectiveness. Yes, the play of the defense will rely on the progression of sophomores and juniors thrust into starting roles ahead of their development. However, there are several young, untested players at each level of defense capable of earning significant action.
Again, this was due to the lack of veteran talent on the roster heading into last season. There’s a similar story on offense, where sophomore quarterback Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson continue to tussle for the starting role. The hope on this side of the ball, as on the defense, is that an added year of experience will pay dividends in 2010.
Don’t break out the champagne just yet; work remains to be done, and Rodriguez has plenty to prove. History is often a poor indicator of future success, so basing Michigan’s 2010 chances on what we’ve seen since 2008 simply doesn’t play. When looking at the roster, the improvement in overall talent on both sides of the ball, the experience gained last fall — as painful as it often was to watch — there’s little reason to expect anything less than sizable progression from the Wolverines in 2010. Most importantly, this progression will reveal itself in the win column. That’s the hope, at least. For Rodriguez, his future depends on it.
Tags: Michigan, Rich Rodriguez, Tate Forcier, Troy Woolfolk
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