Just four weeks ago, Michigan was 6-1, and qualifying for a BCS game was a given. Michigan had bigger plans. At No. 4 in the BCS, the team was talking about the national title game. “We”re Michigan,” was the team”s swagger. “We plan on winning every game we play. It”s always our goal to win the Big Ten and national title.”
So what the hell happened in one month?
This team regressed. Marquise Walker stopped playing like the best receiver in the country and returned to what he was pegged to be before the season started a very good player, but not one capable of carrying a team through a season. The same might be said about linebacker Larry Foote.
But the real problem in 2001 was this: The Wolverines didn”t have a quarterback who could deal with the pressure that comes with this job.
Michigan shouldn”t pretend to be a national title contender with John Navarre as the quarterback. It”s that simple. He freaks out in pressure situations worse than Richard Nixon in a televised debate.
The Big Ten was weak this year and Michigan had the best defense and special teams in the conference. This should have been the year that the Wolverines returned to a BCS game. After all, this is Michigan remember?
But after one half in East Lansing, the offense fell apart and nobody could put it back together again. Lloyd Carr suspected this was the true face of the offense all season and tried to hide it by running trick plays to score cheap points. The problem was, by the end of the season, teams weren”t fooled by the Calvin Bell reverse, and the “Trans-continental” only works once a year.
So Carr just hoped the Wolverines would find a way to win while Navarre learned how to be a quarterback at one of the premier programs in the country. This strategy worked against Iowa and Wisconsin, but after 14 games as a starter, Navarre still wasn”t where he needed to be. Last week against Wisconsin was the worst performance by a Michigan quarterback since Demetrius Brown”s seven-interception performance at Michigan State in 1987. Luckily the defense and special teams covered up the mistakes made at Iowa and Wisconsin.
Can you think of a worse Michigan starting quarterback than Navarre? Sure Brown was a head-case, but at least he could feel pressure in the pocket and escape. Navarre usually just stands there hoping that Marquise Walker gets open while a defensive lineman either sacks him, strips the ball or both.
Scott Dreisbach played poorly at times and seemed to regress as a quarterback, but much of that I think had to do with an injury. Todd Collins wasn”t the Elvis Grbac reincarnation he was advertised to be, but if Collins were the quarterback of this team, there”s little doubt that a BCS bowl would be on the horizon.
Heading into Saturday”s game with Ohio State, Navarre and Michigan knew they needed to win. There couldn”t have been much more pressure on the team to get it done. Illinois had already beaten Northwestern and clinched a share of the Big Ten title. A loss would mean the Fighting Illini would win the title outright and ring in the New Year in the French Quarter while the Wolverines returned to their almost-annual holiday destination of central Florida.
Once again in the face of a major challenge, Navarre panicked and played poorly. Everyone in the stadium knew exactly where he was throwing the ball every time he dropped back to pass. He rarely looked off his primary receiver and even when he pump-faked, he still threw it to Walker, drawing even more attention to his intended target.
The thing is, it”s hard to blame Navarre. He never claimed to be a good quarterback. Even during the good times, he made it a point to remind everyone that he was still learning and that the offense was still growing.
While it”s understandable why blue-chip quarterback prospects wouldn”t want to play behind Drew Henson for three years, there should have been a quarterback in the wings last year. Michigan has always had someone ready to step into the fire when the call came. When Brian Griese left, Tom Brady stepped in. When Brady left, Drew Henson stepped in.
And while Henson struggled as a sophomore thrown into the fire, his problems resulted from working to adjust to the speed of the college game not the inability to deal with a pressure situation.
I have no idea why this void wasn”t filled after Henson agreed to play for Michigan. There are many theories for this reality, but Saturday afternoon, its relevance was truly magnified.
I don”t know if Jermaine Gonzales is the answer. At times he”s impressive, at other times he looks like Michigan”s option quarterbacks of the early “70s.
Regardless, if Michigan is going to claim to be a premier football power, it needs to find a leader who will get the job done when it needs to be done.
Raphael Goodstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.