Saturday night, a friend of mine unknowingly summarized the Michigan-Utah game: “John Navarre lost the game for us … Oh, wait, we didn’t lose.”
It was a telling statement. Michigan players talked after the game about how they were just glad to put another game in the win column. They were happy to dismiss their sloppy performance against an inferior team with a predictable “a win is a win” attitude.
But Saturday’s 10-7 nail-biting “win” over Utah should not be considered anything but a loss. This game was supposed to be Michigan’s chance to prove that its loss to Notre Dame last week, characterized by undisciplined mistakes, was an aberration.
“I think that we have a point to prove because that team you saw (against Notre Dame) was not us,” said captain Bennie Joppru last Monday. “We are not a mistake-prone team.”
But the only thing the Wolverines showed against Utah was that they might even be more mistake-prone than they were against the Irish. Michigan drove into Utah territory 10 times and came away with just two scores because of things such as penalties, two missed field goals and an inexplicable fumble on the goalline by running back Chris Perry.
Apparently, mistakes have become a vital part of the equation for this 3-1 Michigan team.
“You’re going to have mistakes in a game, it’s just sometimes they’re costly and sometimes they’re not,” running back Tim Bracken said.
Has Michigan become so conditioned by its recent mediocrity that it no longer strives for perfection and just hopes its inevitable mistakes won’t lose the game?
Offensive coordinator Terry Malone tabbed the problem “a lack of execution.” He’s right. There was no execution on offense. But he left out the lack of discipline that has become a recurring theme for Michigan over the past few years.
Let’s take a look at a few choice selections from Michigan’s losses from the last two seasons – of course, I’m going to include Utah.
Nov. 3, 2001 at Michigan State, with Michigan rolling through the Big Ten with a 4-0 record and No. 4 ranking in the Bowl Championship Series, is an obvious place to start. With the Wolverines leading 24-20 with less than a minute to play, Michigan cornerback Jeremy LeSueur grabbed receiver Charles Rogers by his facemask and threw him out of bounds away from the play – a fourth-and-16 incomplete pass that should have ended the game. LeSueur went out of his way to draw a penalty, putting his own personal battle with Rogers above the team.
Against Washington in Seattle on Sept. 8 of last season, Michigan was ahead 12-6 in the fourth quarter, until Washington’s Omare Lowe blocked a 33-yard field goal attempt that would have put Michigan ahead by two scores. The Wolverines lost their momentum and the game, 23-18.
And what about last week’s holding penalty in the end zone by offensive tackle Courtney Morgan that gave the Irish the two points they needed to beat Michigan, 25-23? Or how about the three fumbles that killed Michigan’s rhythm and kept its defense on the field time and time again?
Players are supposed to learn to avoid these critical mistakes when they are playing their first Pee-Wee tackle football game, and it makes me wonder just what the Wolverines are doing at practice. After four games, what should be a well-oiled machine ready to rumble into Big Ten play looks more like a broken-down station wagon.
After Saturday’s game, players said they would have to look through the game film to see why there were so many mistakes. I hope they allotted plenty of time.
The Wolverines’ offense set the tone for the rest of the game when it took control of the ball on the Utah 15-yard line after a Julius Curry interception in the first quarter. After the offensive line failed to create a push on two consecutive Perry runs, and a Navarre pass was deflected at the line on 3rd down, Michigan was forced to delve into its bag of tricks. Kicker Phil Brabbs took a handoff out of the field goal formation and ran for a first down.
Now that’s great, and I’m sure it was a crowd-pleaser, but this team should not have to do that to get a first down in the red zone against Utah, no matter how “great” of a defense the Utes have. Then, after another failed push by the offensive line on first down from the 3, Perry got a little impatient. On 2nd down, Perry didn’t even wait to see if his line could give him a hole. He jumped from behind the line with the ball extended in his arms, begging it to be knocked away. And of course, Perry did fumble – his third of the season – and Michigan lost a pristine chance to take control of the game early.
Michigan’s bumbling offense and kicking game kept Utah in the game for way longer than it should have been, and in the end, the Wolverines were saved by Utah’s own lack of discipline. With just under two minutes left in the fourth quarter and the ball on their 26-yard line, the Utes caught the Michigan bug, taking two holding penalties to push them back into a 1st-and-29 on their own 7-yard line. It was too much to overcome.
Saturday’s “win” may have been an official win for this team, but for the program, it represented an emphatic loss of respect. Utah players were not impressed after the game, feeling that they were equal to the Wolverines, who according to Utah running back J.R. Peroulis, “did not live up to the hype.”
With each mistake-prone loss or win, the hype and mystique surrounding this program loses a little bit of its luster.
For Michigan to come out of its current Central Florida bowl rut and win the Big Ten, this group of Wolverines has to accept that wins aren’t really wins if they come like they did Saturday.
J. Brady McCollough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org