Saturday, October 22, 2005

Huge Win at Home! Big Ten Title Hopes Still Alive

Wow! Another nailbiter for the Wolverines, and they come out on top in overtime. This year has been almost too much for my young heart to take - make it 5 straight games decided by 3 points or less.

Today, my patience with Lloyd Carr ran a little short when the Wolverines had the ball with about 4 minutes left in the game, and went with a very predictable three straight run plays in an effort to run down the clock. Overall, I am a Carr supporter - I agree with 95% of the play calls made by Carr, but I just feel that it is too conservative to go with three straight rushing downs when you have a slim lead, and 3-6 minutes left on the clock. On second or third down, I would go for a playaction pass to move the ball up the field. Iowa ended up with the ball back with 3:25 left on the clock, which is way too much time to give anybody when you're protecting a 3-point lead. Thanks to a timely defensive stop, Iowa was stopped a few yards short of the end zone, and had to settle for a game-tying field goal as the clock expired.

Other than that, I thought the Wolverines played a strong game today, and am very happy that they were able to go into a very difficult road matchup against Iowa, and come away with a victory. Iowa had a 22-game home winning streak going, and the Hawkeyes had not lost at home since 2001.

I'm glad to see that my favorite player, Steve Breaston, has finally broken out of his early-season slump over the past few games. Two weeks ago, Breaston broke out with 185 yards on 5 kickoff returns, including a 95-yard kickoff return against Minnesota. Last week, Breaston delivered with several key kickoff returns for good field position, including a return to the 46-yard line with 42 seconds remaining, allowing the Wolverines to set up the game-winning touchdown. Today, Breaston made his first big receiving play, a 52 touchdown reception, which allowed Michigan to take their first lead, with 8:51 left in the 4th quarter.

Unfortunately, Mike Hart was re-injured early in the game, with what looked like a sprained ankle. He attempted to continue playing with the ankle taped up, but was unable to continue. Kevin Grady and Jerome Jackson did an admirable job filling in for Hart, and Jackson scored the eventual game-winning touchdown. Unfortunately, Michigan is simply a different team with Hart is not in the game. Hart is such a huge force, and having him in the game takes a lot of pressure off of Henne, as the defense must continually account for Hart. Hopefully, the injury is a simple ankle sprain, and Hart is back in the lineup next weekend against Northwestern. If not, I thought Jackson showed some promise in today's game, and should be given consideration as the primary running back next week.

It's a tough call on who should fill in for Hart. Grady and Hart are the future of this team. Grady has settled down, and seemed to have resolved his tendency to fumble the ball early in the season. Grady is an powerful force, and the combination of Hart and Grady is enough to wear down any defensive line. I haven't seen the explosiveness in Grady that allowed him to set so Michigan high school records last year. As such, I don't think he has quite the same unsettling affect on opposing defenses that Hart does. Gray is young, and will continue to develop in his role as secondary running back behind Michael Hart. We've seen flashes of brilliance from Max Martin, who had a couple great games against Eastern Michigan and Wisconsin earlier this season, but has somewhat disappeared since, with only one touch in the last four games. Jerome Jackson has been impressive in his limited appearences this season, with 57 yards on only 11 carries this season.

I thought Henne played a pretty strong game today. Henne finished with 14/21, with 206 yards passing, two touchdowns and one interception. The interception was at least partially due to a bad route run by freshman Mario Manningham, but the pass didn't really look like it was delivered correctly either. Early in the game, it looked like Henne was back to his habit of overthrowing receivers, but once he settled down, he was quite accurate in his passing, and demonstrated some mature decision making.

The good news is that Michigan's slim Big Ten title chances are still alive. With the Iowa loss, there are now four teams remaining with 1 conference loss (Penn State, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Ohio State) Next week, Michigan plays the suprising Northwestern Wildcats, who shocked the #14 ranked Wisconsin Badgers two weeks ago with a 51-48 upset, defeated Purdue last week, and destroyed the slumping Michigan State Spartans 49-14. If Michigan can win at home versus the Wildcats next weekend, only three teams will remain with one loss. The Wolverines then need to hope that Wisconsin and Penn State both lose a game. Since the Badgers and Nittany Lions play each other in two weeks, we are guarenteed that at least one of those teams will lose one. The other opportunities for a loss are Penn State vs. Purdue on 10/29, Penn State at Michigan State on 11/19 and Wisconsin vs. Iowa on 11/12.

Pending losses for both Penn State and Wisconsin, we could see yet another Big Ten-title implication game between Michigan and Ohio State in the final week of the year. There is a slim chance that we could see three or four teams all knotted up with two losses each. Generally, tie-breakers are decided by head-to-head matchups, but what happens if Penn State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan all end up tied at 6-2, after a Penn State win over Wisconsin? Wisconsin would have the tie-breaker over Michigan, Penn State would have the tie-breaker over Wisconsin, and Michigan would have the tie-breaker over Penn State, and both Michigan and Penn State would have the tie-breaker over Ohio State. If that is the case, there is no clear winner.

I decided to consult the official tie-breaker rule set from the Big Ten Rulebook. It looks like this is the rule that would decide it:

c) If three of the four teams defeated the fourth team, the fourth team is eliminated, and the remaining three teams shall revert to the three team tie procedure.

d) If there is a tie game between two of the four teams, or if two of the four teams did not play each other, the representative shall be determined on a percentage of all games played in the traditional 11-game, or in certain years (2002 and 2003) 12-game schedule.

Given this hypothetical situation, Ohio State would be first eliminated by rule #7c, with losses to both Penn State and Michigan . If that's the case, it looks like the championship tiebreaker would be between Wisconsin and Penn State, since both had perfect non-conference schedules this season, while Michigan lost to Notre Dame early this season. Penn State went 3-0, while Wisconsin is currently 3-0, but has one final non-conference matchup scheduled at Hawaii on 11/25. Could that seemingly inconsequential game have implications on the Big Ten title?

Actually, upon further consideration, these rules are simply used to determine the BCS-bowl representive, and not necessarily the actual Big Ten champion. Would all four teams be consided co-Big Ten Champions? Does anybody know the correct answer to the question? I guess another Big Ten title would be enough consolation for the Michigan Wolverines, as it looks like they have little to no chance of actually getting a BCS bowl birth, since the next tie-breaker rule automatically eliminates the Wolverines:

5) If there is still a tie, the most recent team earning BCS automatic selection shall be eliminated.