Rich Rodriguez has received a lot of criticism in his two years at Michigan. Almost none of it has been warranted. I can regurgitate the litany of ridiculous accusations and innuendos that have been unfairly tossed his way but I’ve documented them enough here that they should be pretty obvious by now. Rodriguez’s unspectacular 8-13 start at Michigan has been plagued by mitigating factors. Unfortunately, few are willing to acknowledge them. The guy deserved patience when he came to Michigan and got virtually none. He deserved support when he came to Michigan and got very little. The fact that he didn’t get those things has made his job of selling the future of his program to perspective recruits extremely difficult. Without those recruits, Rodriguez has little chance of succeeding. The roster he has right now is just not capable of winning consistently. There are a lot of reasons why we’re at this point. Some of it has to do with inexperience. A lot of it has to do with defensive recruiting in the waning years of the Lloyd Carr regime. If you’re wondering why Michigan is playing walk-ons regularly, it’s because of that. Last week, Mgoblog posted a scathing review of Carr’s final three classes and how they have impacted the current state of the program. In short, Scott Shafer had no chance last season and Greg Robinson has had about the same chance this season. Considering all of this, criticizing Rodriguez for not casting the magic “immediate awesomeness” spell is obtuse. The guy deserves patience and isn’t getting it.
However, there is a point at which criticism—appropriately placed criticism—becomes fair game. That point came on Saturday and it came many times. One major flaw in the mindset of too many Michigan fans is that every mistake Rodriguez makes proves that he should be fired. The fact that people immediately take their criticism and aim it directly at “job security” only undermines what Rodriguez is trying to build. I’m going to take my criticism and aim it at Rodriguez which is where it belongs. Michigan lost to Illinois for many reasons but most of them had to do with the tactical blunders that came from the Michigan sideline. Illinois is a pathetically bad team. It should’ve been stomped into oblivion well before the 4th quarter. Illinois came into this game expecting to lose. The Illini players might not have admitted that but it was obvious by the way they played in the first half. They were so inept that they were repeatedly booed by the disgruntled Illini faithless. The only way they were going to win was for Michigan to allow them to—which is what happened.
Rodriguez’s first blunder came at the end of the first half. On 3rd and six, Michigan sacked Juice Williams on his own 24-yard line with 1:02 remaining. Rodriguez had two timeouts and was likely to get the ball near his own 40 yard line. Michigan led 13-7 at the time and was set to get the ball to start the second half. With two scoring opportunities in a row on top of a six-point lead, Illinois was in danger of getting blown out. Instead of calling a timeout at the 1:02 mark, Rodriguez inexplicably allowed 35 seconds to tick off before calling a timeout with 27 remaining. I can’t even begin to comprehend what logic went into that decision. My only guess is that the coaching staff wasn’t paying attention. That is the only conceivable explanation for burning 35 seconds off the clock. It didn’t even make sense to call timeout at that point. If you’re going to burn 35 seconds and any chance of scoring along with it, then you might as well just forget about it. As poorly as Illinois played, Rodriguez gave its players a huge boost of confidence by letting them go into the half down just six points. I was incredulous by the decision. That level of coaching incompetency is unacceptable.
The other major gaffe came in the third quarter after Roy Roundtree failed to get the extra 18 inches necessary to get into the endzone to put Michigan up 20-7. Michigan faced a 1st and goal from inside the one. Anybody who watches football knows that it is virtually impossible not to gain 18 inches on a quarterback sneak. I don’t care how big Tate Forcier is. It’s not about size; it’s about falling into the appropriate crevice formed by the converging lines. To not run at least one QB sneak in four plays from the 18-inch line is inexcusable. Ideally, he would’ve made that call four consecutive plays if necessary. In fairness to Rodriguez, every college football team in the country from Florida to Akron should be able to gain half-a-yard given four run plays. His players certainly didn’t do their jobs. However, Rodriguez inexplicably went against the play with the highest chance of success on four straight plays. He could’ve lined up virtually any player on his roster behind center and gotten a touchdown with a QB sneak. If Rod was going to defy logic and not run the QB sneak, then Brandon Minor should’ve gotten the carry on four straight plays. Yet, it wasn’t until 4th down that Rodriguez sent Minor trudging out onto the field. If Minor gave Michigan its best chance of a touchdown, then he should’ve been on the field on first and goal.
Those two decisions cost Michigan the game. It’s hard to imagine Tate and Co. not getting into field goal range at the end of the half with 50+ seconds and a timeout especially considering how poorly the Illinois defense was playing in the first half. It’s even harder to imagine Forcier not getting in from inches out on multiple quarterback sneaks in the 3rd quarter. Illinois should’ve been buried midway through the third quarter. Rodriguez’s decisions made sure that didn’t happen which ultimately paved the wave for the Illini awakening.
There have been other criticisms of Rodriguez’s decision-making on Saturday. One was his decision to pass on a 27-yard field goal attempt late in the 4th quarter and go for it on 4th and six. Michigan trailed 31-13 at the time. As a fan—and I’m assuming it’s the same for coaches and players—you want to extend the game—and hope—for as long as possible. That’s why coaches who need multiple touchdowns and a two-point conversion wait until the very end to go for the conversion. The object is to extend the game for as long as possible. Using that rationale, Rodriguez should’ve taken the three points to pull within 15 points with 8:20 to go. I’m not going to lump this decision in with the two egregious decisions I discussed earlier because I don’t think it made much of a difference. Michigan was very unlikely to win the game at that point. A field goal would’ve made little difference. The ball was at the 10-yard line and for all Rodriguez knew, that was going to be his best chance of getting a touchdown. I would not be surprised if he made the correct decision statistically speaking. Rodriguez made game-losing decisions against Illinois but this wasn’t one of them.
One other criticism that I’ve seen is failing to get Denard Robinson into the game. In my opinion, Michigan would’ve beaten Illinois if Denard Robinson was behind center for the entire game. Illinois’s defense is so bad that Michigan could’ve called a designed run on virtually every play like it did in Robinson’s touchdown drive against Iowa. Illinois would’ve had no chance to stop it. That wouldn’t have been the most exciting way to win but RR doesn’t need to worry about style points. He needs to worry about winning. Right now, Denard running on every play gives Michigan its best chance of winning. Tate can’t play well for more than one series without regressing. Once he turns into “bad” Tate, he doesn’t snap out of it. Denard needs to start and Rod needs to run him to victory over Purdue. I understand why he wouldn’t want to do that. He would undoubtedly open himself up to even more criticism than he already has for being one-dimensional with D-Rob in the game. Illinois and Purdue have horrible defenses and Rod needs to make them pay for being so horrible. Force them to do what they can’t which is stop Denard on the ground.
Rodriguez has said on multiple occasions that his team is not good enough to play poorly and win. The same goes for coaching poorly. Even against a team as horrendous as Illinois, Michigan is not nearly good enough to be handicapped by its head coach and win. The loss on Saturday proved that. Contrary to what too many people think, though, making poor decisions in a game doesn’t mean that Rodriguez should be fired. People need to stop acting like he is constantly interviewing for his job. That already took place two years ago when he was hired. Until it becomes obvious that what he is doing isn’t going to work—which is something that nobody can even remotely suggest at this point—the incessant calls of “failure” are just idiotic. However, after what happened at Illinois, it’s apparent that he needs to make better sideline decisions. It would be advisable that he start doing that by this Saturday if he has any inclinations of playing in a bowl game. After Saturday’s loss, this officially becomes the most important game of the Rich Rodriguez-era.