There are lots of questions heading into this weekend's primetime tilt against the Michigan Wolverines. Is Brady Hoke safe? What is the legacy of Devin Gardner? What about the actual game being played? Luckily, Drew Hallett of Maize n Brew, the fantastic Michigan SB Nation site, was kind enough to help us out in the midst of a minor news story going on in Ann Arbor.
Q: What is the state of Brady Hoke's tenure at this very moment?
Drew Hallett: This is the beginning of the end for the Brady Hoke era at Michigan.
Entering the 2014 season, there were many college football writers and Michigan fans voicing that Hoke was on the hot seat. After earning an 11-2 record and a Sugar Bowl victory in his debut season in 2011, Hoke's Wolverines won only 15 games total in 2012 and 2013 and appeared to be regressing after dropping five of their final six contests last season. The general conclusion was that Hoke would be relieved of his duties at the end of the season if Michigan failed to win at least eight games, with a road victory against either Michigan State or Ohio State worth extra.
I disagreed. I claimed that the temperature of Hoke's hot seat was mild and argued that only a complete meltdown by Michigan -- a losing record and bowl ineligibility -- would result in his firing. Even though it has been four years since athletic director Dave Brandon terminated Rich Rodriguez, there are still cracks in the foundation, especially along the offensive line, that Hoke has been trying to fill in since his arrival. 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, after the first five weeks of the season, those signs of progress have been nearly impossible to find, especially on the offensive side of the football. In their first three games versus Power 5 schools -- Notre Dame, Utah, and Minnesota -- the Wolverines had 36 offensive possessions, out of which their offense managed to generate only two red-zone trips, two touchdowns, and 17 points total. This is what happens when you have an offense that cannot string together an extended drive or explode for a big play. So it is not surprising Michigan lost all three of these games by no fewer than 16 points. With Michigan sitting with a 2-3 record and staring bowl ineligibility in the face, all signs would point to Hoke being fired at the end of the season even if there were no other controversy.
But, as you probably are well aware, Hoke is also under fire for how he mishandled quarterback Shane Morris against Minnesota last week, allowing a seemingly concussed Morris, who indeed was later diagnosed with a concussion, to take two snaps, including one where he was reinserted into the game after Devin Gardner lost his helmet mid-play. If you have not yet seen the sequence of events, here is the video:
In the aftermath, I wrote a column calling Hoke's gross negligence and inaction in this situation a "fireable offense." At this point, it seems unlikely that Hoke will be fired mid-season, but there is almost no doubt that he will be updating his resume in December.
Q: All signs point to Hoke getting fired. Any guesses as to who will be his replacement, and is Dave Brandon a dead man walking as well?
DH: It is early October, so it is way too early to know which coaches would be legitimate candidates to replace Brady Hoke if he is indeed fired at season's end. Of course, much of the current speculation revolves around Jim Harbaugh, John Harbaugh, and Les Miles. In my uninformed opinion, I would say that none of these three will be Michigan's coach in 2015. But, like I said, it is just too early to know right now.
Regarding Dave Brandon's job security as Michigan's athletic director, once again, it just too difficult to tell. Brandon, the former CEO of Domino's Pizza, came to Ann Arbor with his marketing "acumen" and the goal to turn Michigan into a "brand" in this modern day and age. This has led to many actions that many fans feel are eroding away at what makes Michigan Michigan. And, then, under his watch, there have been lots of public-relations miscues. Lots of them. I would go into detail, but you do not want to read 1,500 words on this topic. It has gotten to the point now where there have been petitions and protests by the students calling for Brandon to be fired or resign.
Will this actually happen? According to John U. Bacon, who has an ear inside the athletic department, he is becoming less convinced that Brandon will survive the football season. On the other hand, Miami Dolphins owner and billionaire Michigan alumnus Stephen Ross, who has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the athletic department and the business school, continues to back Brandon, saying "he is as qualified to be an athletic director as anyone could be." Will President Mark Schlissel, who has been quoted as someone who does not give much priority or importance to athletics, pull the trigger and possibly upset the biggest donor to Michigan athletics? I just do not know.
Q: Now to the actual football game. What's your take on Devin Gardner's career for Michigan? Will he be looked upon in a positive or negative light when he leaves Ann Arbor?
DH: Whew. Finally. I was beginning to wonder if Michigan-Rutgers had been cancelled this weekend, and no one told me.
This is an interesting question. For years, Michigan fans have had a predisposition to underappreciating the current starting quarterback, whether it was Tom Brady, John Navarre, Chad Henne, Denard Robinson, and now Devin Gardner. Gardner, who was heralded as one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in his 2010 recruiting class, has had a rollercoaster career at Michigan. He played sparingly in his first two seasons in Ann Arbor in 2010 and 2011, one of which he was granted a redshirt, and was not too impressive. In 2012, Gardner transitioned to wide receiver to help the team because Michigan lacked playmakers there. But, before the season finished, Robinson suffered an elbow injury that forced Gardner to switch back to quarterback for the final five games, during which Gardner excelled to the surprise of many. This led to Gardner producing one of the best statistical seasons ever for a Michigan quarterback behind arguably the worst offensive line in the nation in 2013. However, there were still some fans that wanted him to be benched in favor of Shane Morris because Gardner was inconsistent at times, turned over the football too much, and did not win enough games. And, now, in 2014, he seems to have regressed to the point where some Michigan writers, myself included, believe he may be mentally broken after suffering so many hits last season.
Ultimately, I will always remember Gardner as being a very good quarterback that was thrown into an impossibly difficult situation. He has had to endure two head coaches, three offensive coordinators, two position switches, two terrible offensive lines, and endless unfair criticism during his time in Ann Arbor. And, despite all of this, Gardner has kept his head high, remained one of the best kids in that Michigan locker room, and gave everything he had on every play for Michigan. I feel sorry for him that he was not given a better set of circumstances to shine because he truly deserves it. Unfortunately, that is not how life works sometimes. I hope he will be viewed in a positive light after this season, but, because of the concurrent turmoil of Michigan football, I fear he will always be associated with that.
Q: Who are some impact defensive players Rutgers fans should keep an eye on?
DH: Rutgers fans should be on the lookout for four Michigan impact defenders:
1. Defensive end Frank Clark: Clark is Michigan's best pass-rusher and can be a monster off the edge at times. Do not let his mere 1.5 sacks thought five games fool you. All season, Clark has been beating offensive tackles left and right. However, his sack total is low because some of Michigan's earlier opponents utilized a quick-hitting passing scheme that neutralized Michigan's pass rush. There will be instances where Clark may run himself out of a play because he is too aggressive, but Rutgers' offensive tackles have their work cut out for them.
2. Defensive tackle Willie Henry: Henry is only a redshirt sophomore, but he is developing into one of the better defensive tackles in the Big Ten. Henry may only have 14 tackles and 2.5 tackles-for-loss, but him impact goes way beyond the box score. What Henry does so effectively is eat up double teams, which allows Michigan's linebackers to crash down and the fill the gaps for tackles at the line of scrimmage. He also has demonstrated good burst off the snap that allows him to penetrate the pocket and get pressure on the quarterback. So, although Henry may not have a huge game statistically for Michigan against Rutgers, but he can open things up for others.
3. Linebacker Jake Ryan: Two years ago, Ryan was one of the best play-making linebackers in the Big Ten, recording 88 tackles, 16.5 tackles-for-loss, and five sacks. However, after suffering an ACL injury in the spring of 2013 and switching from outside to middle linebacker in Michigan's new 4-3 Over scheme, it has taken some time for Ryan to regain his former ability. He still has some trouble diagnosing plays from the middle, but, when he is allowed to attack off the edge, he is a madman -- and I mean that in a good way for Michigan.
4. Cornerback Jourdan Lewis: Michigan's two best cornerbacks were Blake Coutness and Raymon Taylor last season, when they combined for 10 interceptions, but it is Lewis who has assumed that role this season. Michigan has deployed a more aggressive defensive scheme rather than one that drops back into soft zones this season, which has allowed Lewis to thrive. He has shown an ability to be physical in press coverage at the line of scrimmage and bump receivers off their routes. Accordingly, quarterbacks have been throwing to the other side of the field often, which is why I think the Leonte Carroo-Lewis match-up will be a blast to watch on Saturday.
DH: If Michigan wants to snap out of this funk and earn a much-needed win, there are two things it will need to do. First, the Wolverines must exploit what is a below-average Rutgers secondary. It may not be as poor as it was last season, but the Scarlet Knights are 108th in passing yards allowed per game (278.4), 83rd nationally in passing efficiency defense (133.19), and tied for 101st in yards per pass attempt allowed (7.7) -- and that is with the luxury of playing Howard and Tulane. Accordingly, the Devin-to-Devin connection between Gardner and Funchess must be at full strength because there is not one member of Rutgers' secondary that can lock down a healthy Funchess -- whether Funchess will be limited by his ankle injury is yet to be determined. Of course, if Michigan wants to unleash an aerial assault, Michigan's horrid offensive line must give Gardner enough protection against a Rutgers pass rush that leads the nation in sacks. Will this happen? I am quite skeptical because I believe Darius Hamilton and "The Kemoko Dragon" (Turay) will have their way all night long.
Second, Michigan must win the turnover battle. The Wolverines are dead last in the nation in turnover margin at minus-12. The next worst? Minus-nine. This is what happens when Michigan has the most giveaways in the nation (14) and the second-fewest takeaways (2). The good news for the Wolverines is that turnovers are inherently random, and, at some point, their turnover luck will regress to the mean. The bad news, though, is that this has yet to happen through five games. Michigan really needs Gary Nova to have another one of those three- or four-interception performances if it wants to walk away with a road victory.
But that is the problem. Under Brady Hoke, Michigan is only 6-9 in true road games. The combined record of the six teams Michigan beat in a true road game: 33-43 (43.4 win pct.). And the teams Michigan beat on the road were Northwestern, Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota, and Connecticut. None of these programs are known for their raucous home crowds, whereas the atmosphere for a night game at High Point Solutions Stadium should be electric. Add this to Michigan's offensive incompetence and all of the off-the-field distractions, and I just do not see Michigan stopping this free fall on Saturday.
Rutgers, behind the play of its defensive front seven and some fantastic special-teams play, will make fewer mistakes than Michigan and celebrate its first ever victory in Big Ten play.
Rutgers 23, Michigan 14
I'd like to give an incredibly huge thank you to Drew Hallett and Maize n Brew for these amazingly in-depth answers. For more coverage on the Michigan Wolverines, head on over to Maize n Brew.