Monday, October 13, 2008

First half of the year, through the eyes of a Hopeless Optimist

As Nick Sheridan threw interception number two, I mindlessly glanced at the ground and picked up a soda cup that had been sitting on the empty bleacher in front of me for the entire second half, and out of fury chucked the cup straight down to the ground harder than any Michigan quarterback has thrown a football this year. With that pick, I realized, we were probably going to lose to Toledo.

Toledo, the place I've grown up in admiring Michigan football since I was 7. The place that used to have one of the better mid-major football programs in the country. Until Tom Amstutz took over that is, and has sent the team from national hype and a 10-2 year his first season (with Nick Saban recruits) to progressively worse and worse years with back to back 5-7 campaigns, followed by the dismal 1-4 start this season.

I've been optimistic about Michigan football this whole year. While I'd hoped for a national title every year with Lloyd under the helm, I realized this season was going to be tough. We'd lose a few games here and there due to a freshman quarterback and an inexperienced and decimated O-line, but our defense with Scott Shafer's hyped up aggressiveness, blitzing and press coverage, would no doubt be dominant. We would probably be in the 8-4 range maybe up to 9-3 or 10-2 in contention for a Big Ten title I naively thought.

I watched the Utah game, very patiently knowing this team would take a while to get going. So while I was disappointed with the loss, I was actually pretty happy that the team fought back. I would not get too upset this year,this team needs time.

I watched the Miami game in much the same way. At the end, a victory was getting the program back on track. I partied the night away and for the first time in my life actually truly celebrated a win against a MAC team. I still thought the team had great potential, but I was relishing every positive moment we had with the young team.

I watched the Notre Dame game at Notre Dame Stadium. I watched, enraged, at the stupid mistakes of dropping the ball when noone was around and it wasn't even raining. I was infuriated that the Notre Dame team that went 3-9 a year ago was leading 21-0 on my Wolverines. Surely we would have some rough games, but 7 turnovers, most unforced?!? Even though I came out of that game angry at the dumb mistakes, I still came out optimistic. They moved the ball when they held onto it, they found a QB and running back, I still loved Rodriguez, the players won't drop balls, fumble, and muff kicks like that again, and this was the rough patch of the year for the young Michigan team. Despite all the f-bombs dropped on the ride home, things will get better, there are some good things going here.

I watched the first half of Wisconsin, in disbelief. I refuse to be classless and boo the team this season knowing what kind of transition is occurring. While I remain optimistic, I was always prepared in the back of my mind for what an year-length (or two) transition would be like as opposed to a half season transition (which is what I was hoping for). So I watched with my head in my hands as the team that had two weeks to work on solely holding onto the ball dropped kicks, and fumbled away their opportunity to beat a top 10 team.

I didn't boo, I did not even venture to say we sucked at half time. They were still dropping balls which was unacceptable, and maybe this year would be alot longer than I thought. But the defense still held Wisconsin to field goals, and maybe in the next game if we did not turn the ball over, we could still win and have a good year. But winning this one was certainly out of the question, right?

I thought I truly believed the game was over, yet something compelled me to turn to the person next to me and promise them we were going to win this game as the 3rd quarter began. I watched the first half, resigned to our fate and with no reason to think anything good would happen, but it was one of those moments that had no explanation. The rest of the second half I could not stop moving as the team marched back to a miraculous win. I left the game on a high I never felt before leaving that stadium. The 2003 win over O-State, the OT win over Penn State, the Manningham catch in 2005 vs. Penn State, nothing compared to this moment. I bathed in it all week, wary of a let down the next week.

That second half involved the type of momentum shift that one is lucky to witness once every 30 years. But taking a look back, the team still couldn't move the ball consistently, and Wisconsin's under center offense played right into the defense's hands. A let down against Illinois was certainly possible.

There was no let down at the start against Illinois, a quick 14-3 lead, and Michigan looked like they turned the corner on the transition year. Yet, the defense collapsed, and the rest of the game was 42-6 in Illinois' favor. This game was not a "let-down" in which Michigan's players came in overconfident or unprepared following a big win. This game showed that Michigan had a lot more REAL problems that were yet to surface.

The defense still cannot stop the spread. The defense gets fooled easily. The coaches make adjustments far too late, and sometimes not at all. Although Shafer was supposed to be aggressive and liked to play press coverage and blitz, he is, for whatever reason, not aggressive, constantly plays zone, and is perhaps not that smart. The offensive line will not be very good this season. I still believe in Rich Rodriguez with all my being, but there are certainly some wrinkles he can throw into the offense to respond to the opposing defenses who soon learn exactly what's coming.

All of that, or, it was just another bad game for the young Wolverines who will have a few this season. Regardless, it was loss number 3 and Michigan had a losing record again. Luckily, Toledo was coming up.

I was a bit scared of Toledo's spread attack. They lit up Fresno and we certainly cannot stop the spread, or have not proven it yet. But I'd seen enough of the offense in the first quarter of Illinois, to the second half of Wisco, to the majority of the Notre Dame game (when we didn't turn it over that is) to know that even we could have success against Toledo's terrible defense. The talent disparity alone between Michigan and Toledo should win Michigan this game.

Slow start in the first half, kind of expected. It is Toledo, and no matter how bad this Michigan team is, it probably will be hard to get up for a MAC team in the middle of the year. Again I am hearing boos, and yes it looks bad, but all I can think of is "SHUT UP!" You didn't boo in '06 when Ball State almost beat an unbeaten Michigan team. This is the youngest team Michigan has seen, maybe ever, and you are going to boo them for having a rough half? Please..

Second half, no adjustments. Nick Sheridan is playing? Are you flipping serious?!? If Steve Threet is not hurt and Sheridan is playing, that is one of the only things that could get me furious at Rodriguez this year. Luckily, after the game, they said he was hurt. But as the minutes ticked on, I was more and more shocked at how Michigan never could move the ball against a Toledo defense. That is unexplainable except for the fact that Sheridan was playing, but that was just the second half.

And as Sheridan threw his second pick of the game, as Michigan was trying to respond to a UT field goal, I did something I have never done before. I picked up the closest thing to me, a cup of pepsi, and chucked it at the ground harder than I ever have thrown anything before. As the pop exploded and would get a couple of the people in front of me wet (I am sorry still to you) I could only think of how shocked, stunned, and appalled I was that we were losing to Toledo.

Toledo, the place I've grown up in admiring Michigan football since I was 7. The place that used to have one of the better mid-major football programs in the country. Until Tom Amstutz took over that is, and has sent the team from national hype and a 10-2 year his first season (with Nick Saban recruits) to progressively worse and worse years with back to back 5-7 campaigns, followed by the dismal 1-4 start this season.

I will never live this down as a Michigan fan, as I will never live down the App. State loss. That's what had me so pissed. It then hit me, I am not mad at Rodriguez, any of the coaches (maybe still Shafer), or any of the players. I am more upset of the pain I have to endure after witnessing the two worst losses in school history these past two seasons. I then realized how pathetic of a reason that is for being upset.

Sports teams, no matter how much we want it to be true, will go through cycles of being great, to good, to bad. Some teams will have more of one or the other, but as Michigan fans, we have been spoiled with the longest bowl streak, by far, in the country. Nobody has been consistently as good over the last 30-40 years. It still does not make us immune from the cycle, especially with this big of a transition.

Rodriguez's system is something completely foreign to this program and, to be honest, the players here. This program had not seen an innovative offense since the days of Harry Kipke and Fritz Crisler back in the 30's and 40's. For 38-39 years under the Bo regime it has been the three yards and a cloud of dust mentality for the most part. All of the players here, minus some of the freshman, came here thinking that the offense was going to be similar to what was run under Lloyd. Surely, none of the O-line, Matthews, Hemingway, Minor, Threet, Brown, or Grady thought they would be running a Rich-Rod offense in their careers.

To those of you who have been booing, did you really expect there to be this drastic of a change without some major growing pains? I was, and to a lesser extent now, still optimistic, but I've been prepared for a rough year the whole way through. It takes an idiot not to have been prepared for it. If we were seeing guys dog it like they did last season at Wisconsin, or before the App State game last year, I might understand some of your booing. But these guys are playing hard, they just are not very good. The Toledo loss was not expected and really sucks (I have to hear about it for the rest of my life) but Rich Rod needs to be given time to turn this around. Until then, we have to accept that at least this year, we have to live with a sucky team in transition. Booing won't help them, they know they suck. They're working on it and we have to give them a legit chance.

I don't want to hear "but losing to a MAC team is unacceptable." You know maybe it is, but they are going to have an extremely rough time at points throughout the season as we have seen. Unfortunately, one of those times happened against Toledo. The offense is getting adjusted to an offense, especially the O-line. This offense is still completely foreign to them. That takes time.

The defense should be playing better, but under Lloyd they couldn't stop the spread either. Luckily then, there was an experienced offense that could keep the defense off the field. As for Toledo, Michigan's D struggled at times, but only gave up 6 offensive points to Toledo. I don't care what team you are playing, let alone Toledo, if the defense gives up only 6 points, that is a great performance because it should win you the game. This disaster is on the offense, which really, just is not that good this year.

Anyone calling for Rich Rodriguez's head right now needs to shut up because you sound like a moron. This is his first year in a program that has never seen anything like his schemes, and any transition of that magnitude would take a year or two, even if this was USC. Look at Rodriguez on the recruiting trail and you can see a bright future on the horizon. A pretty nice class shaping up for next year, and two stud wide outs already committed for the year after. Rodriguez will have Michigan back where it should be, eventually, but fans need to stop being idiots and have some patience.

So with Happy Valley approaching, two years removed from the game that Anthony Morelli prays of forgetting that had me watch Michigan walk out undefeated, I am not canceling my trip. Michigan is 2-4 and Penn State is unbeaten and #3 in the country. Michigan just lost to Toledo, Penn State just pummeled Wisconsin in Madison. Why support this Michigan team that just handed a loss that I will never live down as a fan?

Because I am a fan. I am a homer, and I will bleed maize and blue until the day I die. I really don't care if we lose 58-0 to the team that has not beaten us in over a decade, though I'd much prefer a replica of 2005. I will not boo, I will cheer and scream for our defense no matter how bad the game is going. I'm not going to cheer for dumb mistakes, I'll scream in anger like I always do. If they ever look like they are not even trying, then I will scream in rage just like any fan should.

But giving up on this team halfway through the season is lame. So what if they are not going to win a championship, or even make a bowl. I'll be at every game watching and hoping for the team and program to progress in some way. It will ugly at times like it has been, but being a fan involves witnessing those terrible times and still supporting the team.

This season sucks so far, yes, but I also wouldn't rule out a couple moments similar to Wisconsin where for no explainable reason, this team pulls off the unbelievable. Those who love ranting about how the team sucks, and love booing whenever the offense goes 3 and out, and those who have stopped really supporting the team simply resigning to the fact that "we suck," you might be there for the moment. But I guarantee I'll be enjoying it much more whether that moment comes this year, next year, or two years from now.

So where does the optimist go from here, when I never thought I would see the day Michigan started 2-4. I stay optimistic looking at how a disappointing Michigan team in 2005, handed Penn State their only blemish of the year at the last second. But, that year we weren't going through a transition and did end up making a bowl which is questionable for this team. So I probably should just go in knowing we will lose, right.

For better or worse, I choose to keep looking up. If people rip me for trying to keep my spirits up, so be it.

Remember in 2005 when...

GO BLUE!!! In Rod I Trust.

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