How did New England find the right combination of offensive linemen this season, and where are Seattle's biggest weaknesses in pass protection?
12 Sep 2005
by Russell Levine
It was road-trip weekend in Football Junkie land, my annual guys weekend in Ann Arbor, this year extended by an extra night to allow me a full Sunday of NFL viewing with the crew.
As I flew back east Monday morning, I was exhausted, disappointed over Saturday, thrilled by Sunday, a little sad the weekend is over, and happy that I only do this once I year. I'm not getting any younger, and neither is my liver, so these weekends can be a little tough, but all in all, I played this one pretty well.
I arrived in town Friday night to meet up with my fellow Outsider Vinny, our host and fellow UM class of '94 member Steve, and the good Dr. Hank, football aficionado and Dolphins fan extraordinaire. We managed to keep things low key on Friday, important with a noon kickoff for Michigan-Notre Dame looming on Saturday morning. The logistics of Michigan Stadium are such that you need to head in early or risk getting caught in a huge bottleneck at the stadium gates and missing the kickoff.
Vin and I were prepared and got into our seats in time for pregame warm-ups and the full band regalia, but also exposed ourselves to an extra hour of direct sunlight on a cloudless, steamy afternoon. My neck still bears the sunburn.
My worst fears were realized as Notre Dame took the opening kick and marched down the field without facing so much as a single third down on its way to a quick 7-0 lead. Would this game become the shootout I had predicted? Things didn't look good when Michigan's offense struggled early, but at least the defense was hanging in there. They still allowed Darius Walker to get to the corner far too easily and gave up too many long third-down conversions, but their overall effort was much improved after a lackluster showing against Northern Illinois in the opener. They certainly did enough for Michigan to win the game.
No, this time, the problems were all on the other side of the ball. Mike Hart went out early with a hamstring injury and the offense wasn't the same with freshman Kevin Grady at tailback. Grady ran effectively between the tackles, but Hart stretches the field from sideline to sideline, and with Grady in the game the Wolverines were a much less dynamic offense. Of greater concern were injuries on the offensive line that led to some shuffling of personnel. The Notre Dame defensive line dominated at the point of attack and constantly pressured Michigan quarterback Chad Henne, who had five passes batted down, reminding everyone at the stadium of the John Navarre era.
Henne did not stand up well to the pressure, never getting comfortable on his way to a 19-of-44 day that was probably his worst as Michigan's quarterback. And even though Michigan managed to hang in the game far longer than they had any right to, Henne never could make the big play when the Wolverines really needed it. He threw a bad interception at the goal line in the third quarter, threw a fourth-and-goal pass out of bounds in the fourth, and fumbled the snap on the goal line later in the period. Three red-zone possessions in the second half netted zero points, and Michigan lost by seven.
Michigan has had the habit over the years of hanging around in nearly every loss, making me believe at some point that they'd come back far after I first thought they were done. That was never more evident than in this game, which replaces the Oregon loss in 2003 as Michigan's all-time "cockroach" performance. Trailing by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, Michigan failed to score on those two separate goal-to-go possessions, had a fumble recovery overturned by replay on an ensuing possession, yet still managed to pull within seven early enough that they could kick off deep to the Irish. A three-and-out gave Michigan the ball back in good field position with 2:11 to play, but perhaps fittingly for this game, Henne threw four straight incompletions, including about a two-yard pattern on fourth-and-15.
A few years ago, a loss like this would have sent me into a funk for several days. I don't care any less -- I still hang on every play of every Michigan game -- but I recover much quicker these days. Maybe it's just a sign of getting older or gaining some added perspective in life; I don't know. But I have to admit I like it better this way. After we trudged out of the stadium, and made and received the obligatory calls from well-wishers and hecklers, Vin and I met up with the rest of the crew at a bar (we were the only two who actually went to the game), where we had no trouble drowning our sorrows and moving on with life.
Not everybody took it as well as we did. Schmitty, another out-of-towner who flew in for the weekend, was so disgusted (or maybe it was the Casa Dominick's Sangria) that he fired his authentic Michigan jersey onto the roof of a nearby house. The jersey had been purchased at halftime in an attempt to change Michigan's luck. The jersey was retrieved, though not by Schmitty, and we moved on to some of the other establishments we frequented during our time as students. Finding no life at any of them, Vin and I snuck away in time to get to a decent sports bar across town for the Ohio State-Texas kickoff at 8.
One of the reasons I prefer to watch games at home rather than at bars is that I pay closer attention from my living room couch. Despite my best intentions, I only passively watched as Ohio State seemed to have its way with the Longhorns, though I did make a mental note that the Buckeyes seemed to be settling for awful lot of field goals. I was so sure that the atmosphere in Columbus would rattle Texas that it didn't really occur to me that the 'Horns could come back to win even though the score remained close.
But Vince Young kept making plays with his arm, finally hitting Limas Sweed for the game-winning score with 2:37 left. With Oklahoma looking like a shell of itself after two games and Young gaining confidence in his passing, this is looking more and more like the year that Texas gets to the BCS title game, though nobody will really believe until they win that game in Dallas in October.
The evening ended with us watching LSU's stirring comeback to beat Arizona State in the Tigers' road/home opener. After seeing dozens of replays of the game-winning catch by Early Doucet, I'm still not sure he really held onto the ball long enough for a completion, but maybe that was karma at work for the boys from Baton Rouge.
I do know one thing, however, and that is that every coach in America, starting with Arizona State's Dirk Koetter (alert: Martz nominee!), needs to shelve the spread formation/rugby punt from the playbook immediately. I've seen numerous teams attempt this in recent years (including Michigan), and the results are often disastrous. I'm not sure what the rationale is for spreading the linemen's stances wide and putting three upbacks directly in front of the punter. All I know is it resulted in the Sun Devil punter's getting tackled before he could even swing his leg at the ball and an easy touchdown for LSU.
I was up early Sunday to file my college wrapup for the New York Sun -- a big thank you to the Big Ten's big three for stinking things up and providing me with an easy storyline -- then tried to rally myself for Sunday NFL viewing.
I had promised myself that after two years of suffering with Tampa Bay's post Super Bowl hangover, I wasn't going to let the Bucs get to me this year. I picked against them in my regular pool for the opener against Minnesota, something I never do. I've probably picked them to go 30-2 the last two seasons, but no more. I've decided that with my team still within the five-year championship window and in a pseudo-rebuilding mold, I'm just going to take this season as it comes. They might win four games, they might lose four games -- I'm going to be fine with it either way.
That was the plan, anyway. I kept my sunny disposition as Brian Griese threw his first pick-six of the new season to fall behind, 7-0. But by the time it looked like Tampa was going to blow a 10-point lead in the second half, I started to get agitated. Very agitated. When Brian Kelly intercepted a Daunte Culpepper pass deep in Tampa Bay territory to preserve the lead, I was up off my bar stool and yelling as if the Bucs had just scored a Super Bowl touchdown. When Cadillac Williams burst through the line a minute later for the game-icing 71-yard touchdown, I took another lap around our table, hands in the air.
Hank, the Dolphins fan, shared my joy, as he was positively giddy over Miami's destruction of Denver in another 1 p.m. game. Schmitty, a Vikings fan, probably felt like chucking his Jack Del Rio jersey after the Vikings-Bucs game, but he took it well, despite having to put up with me.
As I mentioned, I prefer my living room to the sports bar for my football, but I do love to spend at least one NFL Sunday a year with good friends in that environment. To do it on opening day, in a college town with fans from all over the country, was a bonus. I counted 15 different NFL jerseys in my brief survey of the crowd. If anyone still wonders whether the NFL is America's game, they've never spent a fall Sunday in a sports bar, where in any major city in this country you can find passionate fans of just about every NFL team screaming at the TV.
It may not have been critical in the ultimate outcome of the game, but Arizona's Dennis Green still gets the Martz Award this week for his misuse of the two-point conversion, a personal pet peeve of mine. The Cardinals had scored a touchdown to pull within two points of the Giants, but there were still five minutes or so left in the third quarter. The attempt failed, and when the Giants returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown, suddenly the Cardinals were down two scores instead of a touchdown and a two-pointer. I know that there has been a ton of statistical analysis devoted to this topic that would probably disagree with me, as would many of my fellow Outsiders and readers of this site. But I've always believed that you shouldn't go for two until you absolutely have to. To do otherwise can decide a game earlier than it might otherwise be decided.
1. USC (1) -- No reason -- yet -- for Texas to jump the Idle Trojans.
2. Texas (2) -- OK, winning in Columbus -- now that proves something.
3. LSU (3) -- No way I'm dropping the Tigers for gutting one out at ASU.
4. Georgia (4) -- A bit of a letdown vs. South Carolina was to be expected.
5. Virginia Tech (5) -- Rolled to expected blowout of Duke.
6. Tennessee (7) -- We'll learn a lot about the SEC race Saturday night.
7. Notre Dame (14) -- Michigan could easily have been a loss, but it wasn't and that's the difference with this ND club.
8. Florida (1) -- Here comes Tennessee.
9. Ohio State (6) -- Had every chance to win vs. Texas but didn't capitalize.
10. Miami (Florida) (11) -- Still think they're better than FSU in the long run.
11. Florida State (12) -- OK, so you can score. On a I-AA team. In the second half.
12. Cal (15) -- Impressive showing without starting QB.
13. Michigan (8) -- I don't have to drop 'em as far because I didn't believe as much to begin with.
14. Louisville (13) -- Idle.
15. Purdue (19) -- Reserving real judgement until they play ND.
16. Clemson (18) -- Avoided letdown vs. Maryland.
17. Iowa (9) -- Obviously they're a different team without Tate.
18. Georgia Tech (17) -- Not overly impressive vs. UNC.
19. Arizona State (21) -- Yes, I'm moving them up after a loss.
20. Boston College (NR) -- I should have found space for them last week.
21. Virginia (23) -- Still not much to go on.
22. Texas Tech (24) -- Crushing FIU doesn't prove much.
23. Fresno State (25) -- Looks like the class of the mid-majors.
24. Oklahoma (16) -- I didn't drop them far enough last week.
25. Alabama (NR) -- It's not always pretty, but I like this team's grit.
Dropped out: Texas A&M (20), Auburn (22)
Games I watched: Notre Dame-Michigan (attended); Texas-Ohio State; LSU-Arizona State
14 comments, Last at 17 Sep 2005, 12:34am by hank