Rich Rodriguez's biggest regret, Michigan football team's defensive woes and more Gator Bowl thoughts
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The numbers look like football’s equivalent of a grisly accident scene.
The Michigan football team’s defense allowed 458 points and 5,860 yards this season, both the worst marks in the school’s esteemed history. Opponents averaged 35.2 points and 450.7 yards per game.
None worse than the yardage total. In 2009, the Wolverines defense gave up a then-record 4,720 yards. This year, they smashed the record by 1,140 yards.
Five thousand, eight hundred and sixty yards. It’s a longer distance than a 5K. There are plenty of reasons for that figure - even ones beyond the eight true freshmen Rich Rodriguez likes to talk about so much.
But the root cause of all the defensive problems, and really, the undoing of Rich Rodriguez, can be traced back to one day. December 16, 2008.
That’s the day Rodriguez fired defensive coordinator Scott Shafer after one year in Ann Arbor. It was a panic decision. The Wolverines finished 3-9 and needed someone to blame.
The outsider, the member of the first-year staff with no prior connection to Rodriguez, working with position coaches he did not hire, took the fall. That year, his defense allowed 347 points and 4,403 yards.
Numbers like that would be cherished today.
Today, Shafer is Syracuse’s defensive coordinator. He has his defense ranked 13th in the country in points allowed (18.1 per game) and fifth in yards per game (295.0). Of all the mistakes Rodriguez made in the past three years, the one that hurt him most on the field may have been the quick hook of Scott Shafer.
MORE DEFENSIVE THOUGHTS
Not suggesting Greg Robinson should be up for Coach of the Year honors right now, but with the current defensive coordinator, Rodriguez repeated and exacerbated some of the same mistakes he made with Shafer.
Like Shafer, Robinson did not hire any of his position coaches. Then he was asked to coach the 3-3-5 defense, a scheme with which he had no prior experience, using upperclassmen he did not recruit.
What the Michigan defense really needs is consistency.
In a five-year span, the Wolverines will have employed five different schemes under four different coaches. They’ve gone from Ron English to Shafer to Robinson’s 3-4 to Robinson’s 3-3-5 to whatever and whoever come next.
No matter what happens, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon should not only make a multi-year contract a perk of the defensive coordinator job. He should make it a mandate.
GATOR BOWL REVIEW
On Saturday, Mississippi State converted 5 of 5 fourth-down attempts. Michigan converted 0 of 5. No other statistic summarized the game - or the season, for that matter - so neatly.
The Bulldogs went for it because they were unafraid. The Wolverines went for it because they had no other choice.
Michigan’s run defense just couldn’t stop an opponent when it counted. On a 4th and 1 near midfield in the second quarter, MSU’s Vick Ballard ran for six yards. On a 4th and 2 shortly after, he ran for five more.
None of the Bulldogs’ conversions were more heart-breaking for the Wolverines than Ballard’s 1-yard touchdown run on 4th and goal. Michigan defenders met him at the line of scrimmage. They just got overpowered, and fell behind 38-14.
None were worse than Mississippi State going for it on 4th and 10 at the Michigan 31-yard line in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Chris Relf hit Michael Carr for a 31-yard TD that made it 52-14.
For Michigan, many of the fourth-down attempts stemmed from a well-reasoned fear of field-goal attempts.
On a 4th and 10 at the Mississippi State 32-yard line early, Denard Robinson threw an incomplete pass toward Junior Hemingway. He threw another incompletion to Hemingway on 4th and goal at the Mississippi State 12-yard line.
In the fourth quarter, the same tandem couldn’t convert a 4th and 7 in their own territory, followed by a 4th and 4 incompletion from Robinson intended for Roy Roundtree at the Mississippi State 16-yard line.
Roundtree later dropped a 4th and 4 pass for good measure.
Counting Brendan Gibbons’ errant 35-yard field-goal attempt in the third quarter with the other fourth-down misses, and Michigan made four trips inside the Bulldogs’ red zone that resulted in zero points.
All contributed to the worst bowl loss in school history. The previous was a 45-17 loss to Tennessee in the 2002 Citrus Bowl.
Pete Bigelow covers Michigan football for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at (734) 623-2556, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.