Michigan is a program in tumult right now, from wounds both self-inflicted and external. Penn State heads to the Big House to face what may be called a once-proud football program collapsing unto itself, from pressures within and without, as every problem facing the team seems comically exaggerated into a grotesque spectacle, as the fans seem presdisposed to engage in full-scale mutiny.
And, for our benefit, Maize n Brew's Drew Hallett expounded at length on all these issues, both on- and off-the-field--which makes this week's undeniably the most enlightening Brief Interview we've had here at BSD--if simultaneously the least brief. But we are greatly indebted to Drew for his look inside the psyche of a Michigan fan in advance of a game that was once so eagerly anticipated and now mildly dreaded by fans of both teams. Read on to find out what's gone wrong this season, just why Michigan fans hate Dave Brandon so much, and whether there's anything Brady Hoke can do to save his job.
On to the questions!
Black Shoe Diaries: It seems like this is rock bottom for Michigan. Coming into the season, was this even a worst-case scenario?
Maize N Brew: Well, let's put it this way: if you had told me before the season that, in the first six weeks, Michigan would (1) be shut out for the first time in three decades with a 31-0 loss at Notre Dame, (2) be defeated by Utah, Minnesota, and Rutgers in consecutive weeks, two of which were in Ann Arbor, (3) not score an offensive touchdown or reach the red zone against a Power 5 school until Week 5, (4) have an FBS-worst turnover margin of minus-13, (5) allow Gary Nova to throw for a career-high 404 yards with no interceptions, (6) stare a three- or four-win season and bowl ineligibility in the face, and (7) have a national public-relations crisis regarding the gross negligence demonstrated by Brady Hoke and his staff to allow a visibly concussed Shane Morris play two snaps against Minnesota, including one where Morris was reinserted into the game, I would have thrown you in the insane asylum.
Yet, here we are. And, with how this season seems to be playing out, I may be the one needing the straitjacket by year's end.
[counts down the days to basketball season]
BSD: Are there any Michigan fans who don't want to see Brady Hoke fired? At this point, is there anything he can do to save his job? Is this really about his bungling of the Shane Morris situation or the fact that this is a miserable 2-4 football team?
MNB: Can I say, "Both"? Because it is both.
Entering the 2014 season, when national pundits were voicing their opinions that Brady Hoke was on the hot seat, I was in the minority in thinking that Hoke's job was relatively safe. I argued that only a massive meltdown by Michigan -- a losing record and bowl ineligibility -- would result in his firing even though his Wolverines had won only 15 games in 2012 and 2013 and dropped five of their final six games last season. My belief was that, as long as Michigan demonstrated signs of progress this season, Hoke would be retained because the 2015 season sets up perfectly for the Wolverines in terms of having a talented and experienced roster, balanced depth, and a favorable schedule.
However, halfway through the regular season, those signs of progress have been nearly impossible to find. Michigan's offense has been a disaster. The Wolverines managed only two red-zone trips -- out of 36 possessions -- and 17 offensive points in their first three games against Power 5 schools before exploding for three red-zone appearances and 24 points at Rutgers last week. This is what happens when you have an offense that struggles to string together extended drives or produce big plays. Then, there is the defense, which flashed signs of being one of the best units in the conference before allowing Minnesota's David Cobb to rush for 183 yards at 5.72 yards per carry and Rutgers' Gary Nova to become just the fourth quarterback ever to throw for 400 or more yards against Michigan. Special teams have been poor. The turnover margin is horrendous. Add this all up, and it is no surprise that Michigan currently has "a miserable 2-4" record.
Without any additional controversy, all signs would still point to Hoke being terminated at the end of the season. This team is well on its way to missing a bowl game in the fourth season of Hoke's tenure, which was the only way I saw him not being retained. If there were no off-the-field issues, I think there would still be avenues for Hoke to save his job. To do so, he would need to close out the season with at least five more wins, two of which preferably coming against Michigan State and Ohio State on the road. That would probably be enough for Hoke to appease the Michigan folk and stay in Ann Arbor for a fifth season...
...if there were no off-the-field issues. But there are off-the-field issues.
Hoke's mishandling of Shane Morris, allowing him to play two snaps despite exhibiting clear concussion-like symptoms against Minnesota, was the nail in the coffin. Before that moment, the effect of Hoke's instances of incompetence on the sideline was limited only to Michigan's performance on the football field. This was enough to be fired at season's end. But that was the first time Hoke's incompetence as a head coach put the health of one of his players in serious jeopardy. As I wrote in my column at Maize n Brew, this was a "fireable offense" and could not be tolerated. While it has been announced that there is no chance Hoke will be terminated mid-season, there is a 100-percent chance he will be updating his resume in December.
BSD: There's been more heat towards Dave Brandon than I've ever seen an AD take. Aside from the free tickets fiasco, why has he received so much criticism? Before this year, it seemed like football and basketball were doing well at Michigan.
MNB: I assure you that the anger directed towards Dave Brandon dates back to before this season.
Brandon, as the former CEO of Domino's Pizza, came to Ann Arbor with his marketing "acumen" and a goal to renovate Michigan's "brand" in this modern age. One of his favorite catchphrases is: "If it ain't broke, break it." So that is what Brandon did: he attempted to modernize the culture of Michigan athletics. While some changes were met with applause, such as the debut of night games at Michigan Stadium and the un-retiring and honoring of "legends" numbers, many have been resisted. Fans are not thrilled that Michigan will be wearing its sixth alternate uniform since 2011 this Saturday. They are not pleased that Brandon continues to pipe in music through the PA system rather than allow the Michigan Marching Band to be heard throughout the game. They worry that Brandon is turning Michigan Stadium into [Generic Corporate Sponsor] Stadium that can be found in any NFL city outside of Green Bay -- home to advertisements, billboards, and, God forbid, a mascot. His idea of modernization is eroding away at the values and traits that make Michigan "Michigan" to so many people.
Then, there are the public-relations blunders, which happen over and over again. In these situations, Brandon seems to call the same play from the same playbook each time: (1) make a decision; (2) measure the fans' reaction; (3) if the reaction is negative and he can cover it up, cover it up; and (4) if he cannot cover it up or the cover-up is, well, uncovered, apologize and repair the situation. This happened with more trivial things like his initial decision not to send the Michigan Marching Band to Dallas for the 2012 Cowboys Classic against Alabama, his lie that the athletic department did not pay a skywriter to spell "Go Blue" over Spartan Stadium on a Saturday last season, or the Coca-Cola promotion that essentially handed out free tickets for the Minnesota contest this season. These situations are unfortunate but forgivable.
What is not forgivable is that Brandon called this same play when Michigan apparently hid that Brendan Gibbons did not play in the final two games last season because he had been expelled for sexual misconduct or when Michigan initially insisted that Hoke and his staff did not err in allowing Shane Morris to play with what appeared to be concussion-like symptoms against Minnesota. Brandon and the athletic department needed to be forthright and open with the public, announcing that Gibbons was no longer a member of the team because he had been expelled and they were reviewing whether proper protocols were followed in allowing Morris to re-enter. Instead, they tried to cover their tracks. Yet they failed both times, bringing shame and embarrassment upon themselves and tarnishing the university's image.
And, to top it all off, with this latest public-relations crisis, Brandon completely threw Hoke under the bus after the Morris incident. At his regular Monday presser, Hoke said that he had not spoken to Brandon since the game had ended, denied that Morris had a concussion, and referred to a medical statement that had yet to be released as if it would corroborate his statements. Except, more than 12 hours later at 12:50 a.m. on Tuesday morning, Brandon released a statement admitting that Morris had been diagnosed with a concussion on Sunday and apologized for the staff's mistake. How does that happen? How does Brandon allow Hoke to go to that presser without knowing the proper diagnosis? And, after Hoke is ultimately fired, how would any quality football coach want to go to Michigan to work under Brandon after how Brandon just fed Hoke to the wolves? They would not. Plain and simple.
For these reasons, plus the fact that Michigan football has hit rock bottom and is on the verge of snapping its historic streak of hosting over 100,000 spectators for every home game since 1975 under his watch, it is time for Brandon to go. And rumors indicate it may happen soon.
BSD: All of the struggles aside, this Saturday does mark the first Big Ten night game in Michigan Stadium history. Is there still buzz surrounding the game, if only for that reason?
MNB: Not really. Michigan fans just want this nightmarish season to end already. The team is bad, the off-the-field controversies are worse, and the odds of the Wolverines turning it around in the second half of the season are slim to none. At this point, the only buzz surrounding the Michigan program is speculation among fans and media regarding the potential candidates that may replace Dave Brandon and Brady Hoke. I mean, there are students trying to encourage other students to boycott the kickoff on Saturday to support Michigan while protesting Brandon. Or something like that. If this was the first ever night game at Michigan Stadium, I am certain there would still be buzz. But, because this is the third such game in four years, the luster has worn off enough that fans just do not care that much given the current state of the program. There still will be over 100,000 in attendance. Just do not expect them to be fired up. At all.
BSD: Devin Gardner started last week, even with Shane Morris dressed. What do each of the two bring to the QB position, and who will be under center this Saturday?
MNB: Devin Gardner will be Michigan's starting quarterback not just for this Saturday but for the remainder of the season. Shane Morris will only enter the game if Gardner suffers an injury. And, even then, I would not be surprised if Russell Bellomy was tabbed as the backup because I am unsure if Morris is fully healthy yet. So I am going to focus on what Gardner brings to the table.
Gardner is a very good quarterback that has been broken mentally, which is something that may happen to Christian Hackenberg if Penn State is not too careful. Last season, Gardner produced one of the best statistical seasons ever for a Michigan quarterback behind arguably the nation's worst offensive line. He totaled 3,443 yards and 32 touchdowns in 12 games despite his ribs turning into mush and his foot being broken in the third quarter of the regular-season finale against Ohio State. Gardner accomplished this because he had a strong arm, the ability to make plays with his legs as the pocket broke down around him, and the toughness to fight through the adversity thrown in his direction. He was a warrior, and Michigan won games because of his efforts, not in spite of them. These are traits that Gardner still possesses and will be seen on the football field this Saturday.
The problem, though, is that the change in offensive scheme with new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and the endless hits Gardner took last season have exacerbated his issues with vision and footwork. It is evident that Gardner has lost much of his confidence and bravado and no longer trusts his instincts. Instead, he seems to target his first read, and then, if that is not open, he brings his eyes down to see if the pass rush is honing in on him. It is as if Gardner expects to be hit after a few seconds every time he drops back to pass. This has resulted in Gardner missing open reads, scrambling too soon, and throwing jump passes that cause the ball to wobble and be inaccurate, and explains why Gardner has been erratic much of the season.
So which Gardner will we see on Saturday: Good Gardner or Bad Gardner? I have no clue.
BSD: How much does the loss of Derrick Green for the season, and the continued nagging injuries to Devin Funchess, hurt the offense?
MNB: The nagging injuries to Devin Funchess have hindered the progress of Michigan's offense more than the loss of Derrick Green for the season will. When fully healthy, Funchess is a monster and one of the toughest covers in all of college football. He is 6'5", 230 pounds, has reportedly run a hand-timed sub-4.4 40-yard dash, gets in and out of his routes with a nice burst of acceleration, and high-points the football with the best of them. However, because he has been nursing an ankle injury since the second week of the season, his effectiveness has been limited, which has grounded Michigan's aerial attack severely because Michigan's other wide receivers have struggled to create separation while running their routes.
On the other hand, while Green's season-ending clavicle injury will hurt Michigan's ground game, it is not as if Green has been a breakout star. Sure, Green is Michigan's leading rusher with 471 yards at 5.74 yards per carry, but, in his four games against Power 5 schools, he rushed for only 164 yards total at 3.64 yards per carry. Although some of this lack of production can be attributed to missed blocking assignment by Michigan's below-average offensive line, Green also left many yards on the field by not seeing open running lanes. De'Veon Smith, who has lacks Green's burst but has better patience and runs through more tackles, should be able to replace much of the production lost with Green's injury, while Justice Hayes will remain in his role as Michigan's third-down back.
BSD: Aside from Frank Clark and the front four--which will have a field day against Penn State's offensive line--who else needs to have a big day for Michigan to pull off the home upset?
MNB: Well, for starters, Michigan now is considered a one-point favorite over Penn State in Vegas. [Ed. note: Whoops.] So I would watch tossing the the word "upset" around, even if I am not quite sure why the Wolverines are not the underdogs given, well, everything that has happened this season.
Anywho, as to your question, I am not so sure Michigan's front four will have a field day against Penn State's poor offensive line. It may seem like they should, but, other than Frank Clark, Michigan does not have a defensive lineman that can generate any sort of organic pressure on the quarterback routinely. The only pressure the Wolverines have been able to put on the quarterback has been thanks to stunts or blitzes called by defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. This may change against the likes of the Nittany Lions' offensive line, but I am not as certain it will happen as you are. Of course, my point is moot if Mattison calls stunts and blitzes all night.
The other Wolverine defenders that will need to have a big game are located in the secondary. It would be a surprise if the Nittany Lions are able to find any rhythm running the football against Michigan's run defense, which has been stout barring its performance against Minnesota's power-running scheme. Penn State's best chance to put points on the scoreboard will be to attack the secondary that just allowed Gary Nova to throw for 404 yards. Cornerback Jourdan Lewis is a rising star in the Big Ten and should be rock solid, which is why the onus to step up falls on corners Raymon Taylor and Blake Countess and safeties Jarrod Wilson and Jeremy Clark. If Countess can successfully jam Penn State's receivers at the line of scrimmage, while Wilson and Clark stop playing hesitant in the middle, I really like the Wolverines' chances to win on Saturday.
BSD: How do you see this one shaping up?
MNB: Before last Saturday, I actually thought this was one of the few games that Michigan could still win despite all of the turmoil this season. I believed that The Devin Connection between Gardner and Funchess would be restored as Michigan would avoid testing one of the best run defenses in the nation, while Michigan's defensive line would wreak havoc upon Christian Hackenberg and his offensive line. And, because the Wolverines would benefit from playing in comfortable quarters at night, I liked Michigan to walk away with a dramatic victory.
However, after witnessing Gary Nova slaughter Michigan's pass defense, I have changed my mind. I now believe that Hackenberg, even behind a shaky offensive line, still will have plenty of time to pick apart Michigan's secondary. Hackenberg will finish with around 300 yards and three touchdown tosses, while Gardner and the rest of the Wolverines will be unable to keep pace. It will be four straight losses for Michigan and only 30 days until the basketball team takes the court for its first exhibition. So soon, yet so far.
Penn State 27, Michigan 20
Thanks again, Drew, for such a thorough look behind enemy lines. Remember, folks, to read Maize N Brew all season long for all your Michigan needs--and especially tomorrow, for my answers to Drew's questions.