Michigan State 29, Michigan 6; 6-2, 2-2
Wikipedia defines "Ozymandias" as "contrasting the inevitable decline of all leaders and of the empires they build with the lasting power of art, the only thing that has any permanence."
For Michigan fans, our "Ozymandias" moment has arrived. The moment when we realized the "empire" we once had and aspired to build again is actually closer to existing up the road. There were two teams on the field today. One had a pedestrian, predictable, unimaginative offense that relied more on brute strength and precision than explosiveness and speed, coupled with a smothering, suffocating, soul-destroying defense.
The other team was Michigan.
For the record, Michigan State fans wanted to fire the fuck out of Pat Narduzzi in 2009. In 2009 MSU lost to Central Michigan at home, got bombed by Notre Dame and Wisconsin, gave up 42 points in a loss to Minnesota, got dumptrucked in a four-touchdown loss to Penn State, and gave up 41 points to a Mike Leach-less Texas Tech team in the bowl game to finish 6-7. Don't let revisionism cloud that. They despised Narduzzi and viewed HIM as the problem that caused MSU to regress from their 9-4 2008 season. They bounced back in 2010, outside of one epic failure at Iowa and one unsurprising curbstomping in the bowl game against Alabama. After 2009, MSU has grown into the defensive leviathan we saw today.
So then, are we supposed to expect the light to suddenly click on for Al Borges in 2014? After three years of flailing around with no identity, no execution and an apparent dearth of talent, do we expect 2014 to suddenly be any different? The conventional wisdom is that by year three, you know what you have, and what you are. By year three of Rich Rodriguez, Michigan fans had thoroughly seen enough and were unwilling to continue the absurd experiment any further. Hoke will (and deserves) more leeway than his predecessor, but the further the Rodriguez era fades into the rearview mirror, the shorter that rope gets for the current staff; particularly after a BCS bowl win in 2011.
I try to view things in the simplest terms possible, often to a fault. So from my perspective, what I see in front of me is a program that has had one excellent season, followed by two subpar ones. Only a fool would legitimately expect Michigan to beat Ohio State at the end of this month. Almost three full years in, and Michigan has an average defense that cannot generate any kind of pass rush, and an offense that either does nothing (running the ball) or plays with fire (throwing the ball). Put it all together, and I see a program still terminally ill, unable or unwilling to find any sort of competence on offense, and thus hanging a fragile defense out to dry. I see a program going in the wrong direction. For the fourth time in two years, Michigan failed to score a touchdown. That's a special, historic kind of ineptitude that earns the offense the grim distinction of being something close to the equivalent of whatever Rodriguez tried to do on the defensive side of the football during his tenure.
In 2008, it was Scott Shafer. In 2009 and 2010, even as opposition to Rodriguez mounted, a chunk of Michigan fans still railed against Greg Robinson specifically. To this day, there are still Michigan fans who believe Robinson was the problem and Rodriguez simply needed yet another defensive coordinator to right the ship. Now, the whipping boy is, naturally, Al Borges. There are very obvious and very legitimate problems that fall on Borges, of course. Borges calls the plays, calls the formations, and rams the offense's head into the brick wall.
But the coordinator is only the symptom. Nothing happens on a football team that doesn't land at the feet of the head coach. Michigan wasn't a laughingstock on defense from 2008 through 2010 because of Shafer and Robinson. They were a laughingstock because the head coach dismissed the defense as nothing more than cannon fodder for the offense in practice. Rodriguez didn't care enough about the defense; he was content to leave it up to his cronies and the coordinator, and whatever happened happened. The result was predictable.
In that same vein, the problems with Michigan's offense today go beyond just Al Borges. Michigan has been trying in fits and starts for three years now to be what Brady Hoke wants them to be. Hoke has a vision in his head of what he wants the team to be, and regardless of the facts on the ground, he and Borges have tried, multiple times each season, to forcefeed this vision down the roster's throat. It's because of this that Michigan trailed Notre Dame 24-7 after three quarters in 2011, got squashed by Michigan State and Iowa in 2011, and needed a series of highly improbable events bordering on miracles to win the Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech. It contributed to Michigan's losses to Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Ohio State in 2012, and it has now castrated Michigan's 2013 season. Events like the aforementioned grabbed Hoke and Borges by their collars and dragged them kicking and screaming back into the shotgun-oriented spread offense, resulting in things like the 4th quarter against ND in 2011, 45-17 against Nebraska, 40-34 against Ohio State, and the like. There have been a small handful of games in the last two and a half years that left us wondering, "where has that been?!"
All the while, an enormous disconnect has formed. Under Rodriguez, Michigan had coaches who made fans cringe and hold their breath when they spoke, because Rodriguez didn't have the inner censor that should have prevented some of the gaffes he made. That made him appear like an oafish clown at times, and the results that followed on the field and in recruiting matched up. Now, Michigan has coaches who say all the right things and recruit like Michigan is supposed to recruit, and then when the lights go on on Saturdays, the team faceplants itself into the turf. The 6-2 record looks decent enough but is completely devoid of any merit when "wins" against Akron and Connecticut feel like losses, and the defense gets doused with gasoline and set ablaze against Indiana. Hoke himself is emphatic about the Big Ten championship being the one and only goal that matters. By that measure, three years into his tenure, Hoke is a failure. Most of us are more lenient because we know the dumpster fire he inherited. But all good will has an expiration date. Of all the indignities witnessed over the last couple years, today might have been the most egregious. The final realization that, with a sledgehammer of emphasis, Michigan State has absolutely lapped this program. MSU has ravaged this program for 5 out of 6 years now, and outside of one spectacular meltdown by MSU in the final minutes of the fourth quarter in 2009, really none of the games have been close. Each year this has happened, Michigan fans have lamented and vowed that this would be the last year Michigan gets physically demolished by Michigan State. And each year, it happens again. Rushing for -48 yards, giving up seven sacks, scoring zero touchdowns and losing by 23 points should not happen in year three. I'm not a subscriber to the internet lunatic theory that ONE game should result in firings, but this has been building for a while, and today was the final straw for me, as far as Al Borges is concerned. If you also believe that every head coach is entitled to a mulligan, then Hoke has spent his and needs to move against Borges ASAP. John Beilein did this after 2009-2010, and the results have been plain as day. The basketball program faced a sink or swim moment: following up the first NCAA Tournament appearance in a decade with a dismal 15-17 showing in 2009-10, Beilein knew that the current configuration was no longer compatible with success in the Big Ten. So out went Jerry Dunn, Mike Jackson and John Mahoney. In came Jeff Meyer, LaVall Jordan, and Bacari Alexander. The upward progression since then: 21-14, 24-10, 31-8, with a conference title and a Final Four banner, and a preseason top 10 ranking headed into 2013-14.
Does Hoke have it in him to do the same? Football coaches are notorious for their inflexibility and stubbornness. Hoke's militant dedication to this antiquated "manball" concept when, in year three, Michigan cannot move a pile whatsoever, makes him look foolish. Hoke and Borges run their offense like it's 1970 and they can simply line up, tip the play, and push the other guys around. How many of Michigan's losses since 2011 have been a result of stubborn, bullheaded offensive philosophy that is rarely applicable in today's game? Hoke wants to be Stanford, but has a fraction of the talent. If Michigan played Stanford, the result would be similar to today's abomination. And at this point there's nothing that can be done to save this season. November is less than 48 hours old, and Michigan's title chances are dead on arrival. The destination is another second-tier bullshit Florida bowl, with a quarterback who doesn't value the football, an offensive line that has as good a chance of running into each other as they have of blocking the other team on any given play, and a defense that can't rush the passer, turns guys loose in the secondary with regularity, and is increasingly erratic at tackling.
Michigan will continue this maddening trend. To expect otherwise is to expect a radical change in human nature. Michigan will continue to ram its head into the brickwall, over and over, expecting different results, until nothing beside remains. Michigan is on the path toward becoming that shattered visage of Ozymandias. The same thing, over and over again.
And each Saturday, we look on its works, and despair. Dominated by one rival for a decade, physically crushed by another, with no true end in sight, because the offense, stamped on these lifeless things, knows nothing than to do as it has done.
"Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."