Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
18 Sep 2006
by Russell Levine
Lloyd Carr is what's known in Ann Arbor as a "Michigan Man" -- a title that speaks to his having descended from the Bo Schembechler coaching tree. He has spent 26 years on the Michigan staff, the last 12 as head coach. Though he has taken the program to heights never achieved by the legendary "Bo," he has spent the last several seasons fending off calls for his dismissal, a chorus that grew to a crescendo after last season's 7â€“5 mark.
As the fire under his feet has grown warmer, Carr has grown more aloof. He treats halftime interviews and postgame press conferences as if they were a root canal. Some would say he coaches with a chip on his shoulder.
If that's the case, score one for the old school coach. Carr's team carried that collective chip with it into Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend on Saturday, and the result was a three-hour mugging of the Fighting Irish. By the time it was over, Michigan had reclaimed its position among the nation's elite teams, rising to sixth in the AP poll, Notre Dame's national championship aspirations were shelved, and a presumed Heisman run by Irish quarterback Brady Quinn was put in serious doubt.
But the take-away from this game wasn't about the fallout for Notre Dame, nor was it about Michigan's place in the 2006 national-title chase. It was simply a statement by a much-maligned coach that those who would write off the Wolverines as being too staid in their approach to modern football do so at their own risk.
The chief criticism of Carr in recent seasons has to do with his conservative approach. Four of Michigan's five defeats a year ago involved blown fourth-quarter leads, all characterized by a lack of a killer instinct on offense and a passive approach to defense. The Alamo Bowl loss to Nebraska was a fitting end to the season, as the Cornhuskers rallied from two scores down in the fourth quarter.
Carr, fiercely loyal to his fellow Michigan Men on the staff, nonetheless invited his two coordinators to seek other opportunities. Mike DeBord returned to the offensive coordinator post he held during the 1997 national championship season, while a dynamic young assistant, Ron English, was promoted to defensive coordinator.
English, in particular, promised to change things. Gone would be the bend-but-don't-break approach favored by his predecessor, Jim Herrmann. The more aggressive approach was evident in Michigan's season-opening wins over Vanderbilt and Central Michigan. English called for blitzes even on obvious passing downs, a strategy that had grown increasingly rare under Herrmann. Against Notre Dame, Michigan's talented front four routinely found their way into the Irish backfield, knocking Quinn off his game early. By the time Notre Dame had its initial first down, the score was 20â€“7 in the second quarter.
Quinn, who had carved up Penn State the previous week to boost his Heisman campaign, grew so confused from the battering and the twisting, stunting Michigan line that he began to feel a pass rush that wasn't always there. Many of his 24 incompletions were thrown nowhere near their intended targets despite ample time in the pocket.
Michigan's offensive approach was equally aggressive, although it didn't start out that way. After linebacker Prescott Burgess scored with an interception to give Michigan a 7â€“0 lead in the first minute, the Wolverines forced a three-and-out, then regained possession at midfield. To every Michigan fan's horror, the Wolverines ran off-tackle twice, then watched as quarterback Chad Henne forced a terrible pass that the Fighting Irish intercepted and returned to the Michigan four-yard line, allowing Notre Dame to tie the score.
This was the same conservative approach that had contributed to six consecutive losing efforts in road-openers. But just as Michigan supporters were settling in for a long day, a light went off on the Michigan sideline. After an exchange of punts, Henne threw deep on first down to a wide-open Mario Manningham for a 69-yard score, giving the Wolverines a lead they would never relinquish.
DeBoard kept attacking throughout the first half, and the result was two more long touchdown throws to Manningham, who looks to be the next great Michigan receiver, following the likes of Anthony Carter, Amani Toomer, David Terrell, and Braylon Edwards. With the lead at 34-14 at halftime, the second half became an exercise in grinding the clock on offense and pummeling Quinn on defense.
Any Michigan observer would have to be blind to miss the change in the Wolverines' approach. Recognizing the weakness in its opponent (the shaky Notre Dame secondary), Michigan attacked it over and over, consequences be damned. Still, the school's shell-shocked fan base can be forgiven for hanging on to its fears. Fans posting to a popular message board in real-time throughout Saturday's game continued to express their doubts even as Michigan held on to its lead deep into the fourth quarter.
The parallels between the 1997 team and this one are obvious. That Michigan squad was coming off four consecutive four-loss seasons and there were plenty of questions about Carr, then an unproven third-year coach. They weren't taken seriously until a late-season road rout of Penn State, perhaps the last Michigan big-game victory that was as complete as Saturday's. This year's squad has announced its intentions to compete for Big Ten and BCS titles by mid-September, but the Wolverines must prove they can handle success.
The first test comes Saturday, in Michigan's conference opener against Wisconsin. In 2003, the Wolverines crushed an overmatched Notre Dame by a 38â€“0 score, but their stay among the nation's elite lasted all of seven days. A ragged Michigan lost at Oregon in its next outing. The schedule is a bit gentler this time around, with three winnable games (vs. Wisconsin, at Minnesota, vs. Michigan State) before a road trip to Penn State.
For Carr, redemption will last only as long as he keeps winning. Another season-ending loss to Ohio State, which would drop Carr to 1â€“5 against Jim Tressel, would renew the calls for his head, no matter how unlikely his firing would be.
When Urban Meyer was on the market two off-seasons ago, many Michigan supporters lobbied for the school to sack Carr and pursue the dynamic, young coach who ultimately landed at Florida. What those fans fail to grasp is that Michigan will never hire a coach of Meyer's ilk as long as the living legend, Schembechler, continues to draw breath. Though officially retired, Bo's influence still runs deep in the Michigan athletic department, meaning the next coach of the Wolverines will always be somebody with ties to the program -- a "Michigan Man." A few more days like Saturday and it's an idea that the school's fan base may even come to embrace.
There were ample candidates for this week's JLS Trophy, some suggested by readers in the Seventh Day Adventure thread. But I'm going to go off the board and take a look at the weekend's most controversial game: Oklahoma at Oregon.
It's been well covered that Oklahoma basically got hosed by a pair of very dogdy calls as Oregon mounted its late comeback. The fact that both calls could, and should, have been overturned by replay only makes matters more frustrating of OU and its coach, Bob Stoops. However, both Stoops and Oregon coach Mike Bellotti made silly decisions that factored in the outcome.
Once Oregon got the lead, Bellotti elected the squib the kickoff, ostensibly to keep the ball out of Adrian Peterson's hands. But with just a one-point lead and 45 seconds left to play, a squib was a foolish choice. There was enough time left, thanks to the "first-down stops the clock" rule, for Oklahoma to run several plays. When the bouncing kick was picked up at the 20 and returned 56 yards, it looked like Oregon had lost the game.
Except that Stoops trumped Bellotti's bad decision with one of his own. Despite having three weeks to adjust to the new clock rules, Stoops's offense allowed some 10 seconds to tick off the clock before running a play, and that play was a handoff to Peterson. Since OU had no timeouts remaining, they had to scramble to spike the ball with just two seconds remaining. The 44-yard field goal attempt was blocked.
There's no reason Oklahoma shouldn't have run at least two plays. They still would have had plenty of time to kick, provided they were ready to snap the ball on first down and they threw it at least 10 yards downfield.
For this pair of head-scratchers, Bellotti and Stoops share this week's JLS Trophy.
Note: Portions of this article appeared in Monday's edition of the New York Sun.
40 comments, Last at 22 Sep 2006, 2:17pm by John McQueen