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Rose Bowl Redux

Brian and the official bestowing of instant conventional wisdom remain whereabouts unknown a good 46 hours after the fact of Michigan similarly going MIA in the Rose Bowl, so the absence of charts and stuff leaves conjecture outside of OMG Dwayne Jarrett! largely speculative. Orson offers a few theories of his own at the root of USC's Wolverine-wastin', the most notable of which is

On both sides of the ball Michigan slid backwards all day like they were on carpet skates.

This is partly right, except that Michigan's defensive line actually played well against the run; Terrence Taylor and especially Alan Branch, perhaps in search of impending NFL millions, were their typical nightmare selves on the interior and were largely responsible via disruptive penetration for holding SC backs to 52 yards, their worst total of the season, on 2.7 per carry, better than any defense against the Trojans except UCLA, and a long run of 11 yards. Booty was also sacked once and harrassed elsewhere. USC's offensive line didn't dominate Michigan's defense.

Dwayne Jarrett's had enough of this `offensive line' business

The Trojan defensive line, however, well, here Orson is on target: "USC's marauding, blitz-giddy defense and Michigan's stodgy, run-first 1982 hottness attack probably meant disaster from the start." This is prescient in hindsight, but marauding and blitz-happy defenses hadn't bothered Michigan yet this season; SMQ has thought all season of Michigan as a balanced offense able to run effectively on anyone who adequately respects the poignant "Letter to Defensive Coordinators Who Would Put a Safety In the Box" penned by Mario Manningham at Notre Dame, yet still pound well enough against those who didn't to toast their off-balance ass with Manningham - or adequate replacement, during UM's run against less threatening fare prior to Ohio State - in due time (of which, for the nation's leader in time of possession, there was plenty). Even three touchdowns in the hole at OSU, Michigan regained momentum by running Mike Hart down the Buckeyes' collective throat and getting after Troy Smith, who was forced into a key turnover under pressure in the second half (the other OSU turnovers, on muffed snaps - heh, muff - were unforced errors). And when finally forced by the score to throw in Columbus, UM went down the field for a touchdown. For its part, USC had allowed decent to good rushing games to far, far lesser attacks from Washington State, Washington, Arizona State and Notre Dame, as well as Arkansas; Nobody, on the other hand, as SMQ noted Sunday, had successfully held Mike Hart in check, and why should it have been the Trojans?

SMQ was right before the Rose Bowl, though, about the complete lack of precedent in case Hart was slowed and what problems it could cause if the Wolverines were forced into "predictable patterns" on later downs if they failed to approximate their season average of 4.6 yards per first down run; sans sacks, twelve first down runs for Michigan Monday netted three yards per carry. The Wolverines ran 31 total first down plays (19 first downs earned on 12 possessions) and faced second and seven or more 17 times (first downs followed eight of these situations, 47 percent) and third and five or more 10 times (overcome for first downs only twice, 20 percent). Both Michigan turnovers were the result of pressure on Henne in the pocket on a 2nd-and-8 attempt.

It wasn't only that Hart was regularly overrun after moving the chains on the first snap of the game, but that Michigan was rarely in position to run him, even prior to desperation time: Henne was sacked six times, but only once in the second half (resulting in a fumble), and only one of those hits came on third down. Mike DeBord, contrary to popular legend, does in fact occassionally call passes on first down, and attempted to do so here to ill effect, resulting in two sacks in the first half that virtually eliminated Hart as an option on the resulting second and long plays; Henne was sacked twice more in the first half on second down attempts, all with at least eight yards to go, and on a third down with 15 yards to go. The point being that not only could Michigan not block Sedrick Ellis and Fili Moala (one sack, two tackles for loss apiece) up the middle or Brian Cushing around the end when forced into an unfamiliar situation - obvious passing downs - but also that USC was endlessly aggressive even when the scouting report said "Handoff to Hart Here," getting pressure from linebackers (Dallas Sartz and Keith Burns combined for one sack) and DBs (Terrell Thomas ended one miserable second quarter sequence, in which Henne was sacked, converted a long-yardage throw for a first down, and was subsequently sacked twice more on the next set of downs). This was not, as supposed, the result of halftime adjustments, but a calculated attempt to overrun the massive Michigan line with an onslaught of terrifically athletic bodies out of the gate.

For all its first half struggles up front, though, those quarters should be considered Michigan because the game was knotted at three at halftime and the Trojans had only four meaningful possessions. USC had actually moved the ball well, 49 yards for a field goal on its second possession and 47 yards on its next trip before fumbling away a chance to re-take the lead. Aside from its scoring drive, a 54-yard march on 13 plays that took more than five-and-a-half minutes, Michigan's other four drives totaled 18 yards; that is, USC was averaging a little more than 30 yards per non-kneel-down possession in the first half, and Michigan just over 14 yards. It wasn't out of the blue, then, that when the Wolverines immediately turned it over after the defense forced its first three-and-out to open the third quarter, USC proceeded to score 31 barely-answered points on five straight, Booty-dominated drives.

Where that onslaught is concerned, the analysis isn't tough: Michigan couldn't cover Dwayne Jarrett. Not that anybody else can (SMQ said Sunday: "...few players are more dangerous to a defense whose safeties have to keep an eye on play-action than Jarrett, whose box out, small forward-type skills with the ball in the air continue to make him a consistent mismatch against any college corner in man-to-man..."). The play-action part, ultimately didn't matter at all - by the middle of the fourth quarter, the secondary was so disoriented it couldn't cover Steve Smith or Fred Davis, either, but it was Jarrett - and Booty delivering the ball on time, in the right spot- whose towering bodily-kinesthetic intelligence utterly frustrated all attempts at coverage by Morgan Trent (why not Leon Hall, the Butkus Thorpe finalist?) and, most of the time, whoever was attempting to help him. SMQ's in no position to know, really, but he imagines USC's final touchdown drive, a four-play exhibition of casual throat-stomping dominance that saw Booty go downfield to Smith for 26 yards, Jarrett for 29, Davis for 23 and Smith for a gimme seven-yard score on consecutive plays, ranks with the lowest moments in Wolverine history, and was the anvil on the camel's back for the Carr bashers pre-emptively admonished by Kirk Herbstreit yet still in force at MGoBlog and the like.

So the main idea of the Rose Bowl: USC is freakin' good. At all times. Sometimes, they forget this. Sometimes, everybody else does, too. Sometimes, I dunno, Booty's a little hobbled or something, the offensive line's not totally into it. There's a tipped pass, a turnover. These things happen. Not that Michigan's not very good, and hasn't played on a level that regularly matched or exceeded USC's often baffling efforts most of the past three months; not that the two-loss Trojans deserve anyone's number one vote after falling asleep against teams it likely would have ground into fertilizer with anything approaching its performance Monday. Here, though, is a team that outscored its five ranked opponents by roughly three touchdowns apiece in games that often weren't actually so close, that barely broke a sweat in the process of wrenching two BCS participants and two other major conference championship game participants. And yet loses at Oregon State and UCLA? Struggles to hang on against a string of the PAC Ten's sketchiest? Prescribe it some lithium, rank it number one heading into next year - again - and furrow your brow until it figures out how to get up for games on Fox Sports Net or TBS and connect with its inner monolithic juggernaut on a regular basis.