In the words of Brad Nessler: “Holy…smokes!”
“The Game”, which I, along with most of the college football world, expected to be dominated by the visiting Buckeyes was anything but a domination, instead a fantastic battle between two heated rivals. Michigan ended up falling 42-41, with the difference being a failed 2 point conversion in the final minute for the Wolverines. But despite the loss, this was still a great game, as Michigan pushed an undefeated Ohio State team all afternoon in their best performance of the year. It just wasn’t enough. The biggest storyline coming out of this game was how unprecedented this performance was for Michigan, particularly on offense. On the other end of the spectrum of surprise, we once again saw that Ohio State is a really good Big Ten team, but also a team with flaws that will likely finish 13-0 and not deserve to go to the BCS Title game.
Today’s Michigan offense was coached by the bizarro Al Borges, with a Devin Gardner who just woke up out of a coma he apparently fell into after beating Notre Dame, and a for-once functional offensive line. Did anyone see this offensive performance coming? Michigan had out-gained their totals from three of the last four games by early in the second quarter today. They went on the triple that output, racking up 603 yards and that wasn’t even the most surprising statistic from the Michigan offense. The biggest shocker was that Michigan not only converted first downs on third down in the plural, but was a whopping 8-14 on third downs. This comes as November concludes; a month in which Michigan converted just 20% of their third downs.
This was all due to three major changes in Michigan’s attack. First off, the plays they were running were real, legitimate plays. This has not been a constant from Borges this year. Michigan’s attack wasn’t complex at all today, save for a couple trick plays, but it was direct and efficient. If Borges had coached like that all season, Michigan would be in a very different situation right now.
Second, Michigan’s offensive front played their best game since Big Ten play started. They were able to give Gardner time in the pocket to complete 32-45 passes for 462 yards and 4 TDs, as well as facilitating a decent run-game, that tallied up 152 yards on 38 total carries. Why they were able to play this well against Ohio State, but not Iowa, Nebraska or Northwestern is beyond me.
Finally, Gardner actually played well. People have been pointing fingers at everyone involved in Michigan’s offense over the past month, but at the center of the problem has been the play of Gardner. Receivers had been dropping passes, the run game wasn’t working and the line wasn’t giving Gardner much time, but he still wasn’t doing enough to make things better, as good quarterbacks do. Today, he was confident in the pocket, smart with his passes and had good zip on his intermediate throws. This was the Devin Gardner Michigan fans thought they had after the Notre Dame game. Too bad it didn’t really appear again until December.
But that’s the thing: there was no precedent for this type of performance by Michigan’s offense. Sure, they have played well before (against Indiana), but never against a good team. They went from struggling against mediocre teams like Iowa and Northwestern to being terrific against Ohio State. It doesn’t make much sense why it took so long for this offense to reach its potential, which really makes the loss all the more heartbreaking.
If it is of any consolation to Michigan fans, this game didn’t do much to help Ohio State’s BCS Title hopes. Michigan was able to show and exploit the Buckeyes’ flaws in front of a national audience. Sure Ohio State is still undefeated, but they won’t get any generosity from the coaches or media polls, as they are looked at as the best team in a mediocre conference. If Alabama and Florida State make it through unscathed, this is a moot point, but if one of them loses, I wouldn’t be shocked if a one-loss team passes (or stays ahead of) the Buckeyes. So, there’s that.
And if you feel down about Michigan right now, remember, it can always get worse. Johnny Manziel may soon be shredding Michigan’s defense in a bowl game not near you.
You can follow Alex Dale on Twitter @alexdaleCFB.