Tag Archives: Tate Forcier

Three and Out by John U. Bacon: Book Review

On the copyright page of John U. Bacon’s Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28), there is a note that reads: “This book has not been approved, endorsed, or sponsored by any person or entity involved with the University of Michigan.”

No kidding.

Bacon’s inside look at the University of Michigan football program has reportedly angered many of the key characters—former coaches and players, athletic directors, the University president, Rodriguez—and Wolverine fans will revel in the details of how Rodriguez was hired and what eventually led to his demise. The greater value of this book, however, is the picture it paints of big-time college coaches and athletes on and off the field. And what a fascinating picture that is.

Through a friend of a friend, Bacon—a freelance journalist, author, and a teacher at the University of Michigan—was granted unrestricted access to the Michigan football program during Rich Rodriguez’s first season in Ann Arbor, in 2008. When that season ended with a 3-9 record, Bacon realized the story was far from over, and he and Rodriguez extended the deal for another two years.

I’m not sure whether any reporter has ever had Bacon’s level of access to a major college football program or if any will in the future. Bacon exploits this opportunity, reporting from the sidelines, the locker room, practices, meetings, and just about anywhere else Rodriguez or his players might go. The demands on the coaches and athletes are startling. Sure, there is a lot of glory that can come from being in the limelight that Michigan football offers, but I doubt too many college students would want to switch places with quarterback Denard Robinson or many wanna-be coaches would like to fill Rodriguez’s shoes after reading this book.

Rodriguez’s stresses went beyond that of a typical coach. Bacon traces the fracturing of the Michigan football family to the death of its “godfather,” legendary coach Bo Schembechler (with whom Bacon co-authored a book), in November 2006. The following year was the last for head coach Lloyd Carr, and Bacon depicts athletic director Bill Martin’s sloppy search for a replacement. Going down a list that seemed to change by the day (Kirk Ferentz, Tony Dungy, Greg Schiano, Les Miles), Michigan eventually hired West Virginia’s Rich Rodriguez, considered one of the top minds in his profession.

Rodriguez’s last three West Virginia teams posted 11-win seasons with two BCS bowl victories (though Rodriguez had been hired by Michigan and did not coach the last one), with Rodriguez’s innovative spread offense breaking all sorts of records along the way. With all the tradition and resources Michigan has to offer, it was reasonable to expect Rodriguez and the Wolverines would do great things.

Of course, it didn’t turn out that way, and Bacon was there to witness everything. He chronicles the missteps before Rodriguez had even coached a game in the Big House, such as the West Virginia buyout fiasco and fumbled introductory press conference. The Detroit Free Press report on Michigan’s practice violations receives a thorough examination as well.

Undoubtedly the biggest off-field problem during the Rodriguez tenure, however, was the powerful faction that wanted someone else leading the winningest program in college football history. Bacon explores this throughout, but was unable to get an interview with Lloyd Carr. Without getting Carr’s side, Bacon couldn’t reconcile why the same person who first recommended Rodriguez to Martin may have undermined Rodriguez behind the scenes.

Winning solves a lot of problems, though, and Rodriguez could have quieted most of his critics by avoiding a three-win debut season and second-half collapses in the next two. Bacon doesn’t try to sugarcoat the losses and doesn’t shy away from criticizing some of Rodriguez’s questionable off-field decisions—in addition to the press conference gaffes Michigan fans are familiar with, Rodriguez didn’t show his face enough in public, costing him the chance at gaining supporters he could have used when things went bad.

Three and Out readers will learn that despite the PR blunders and constant questions about whether he was a “Michigan Man,” Rodriguez came off as a seasoned orator when addressing his team, always direct and confident and regularly referencing the Michigan tradition that many former Wolverines thought he failed to grasp.

Throughout the 438 pages, Bacon contrasts how Michigan handled the transition from Carr to Rodriguez to how it dealt with the last time an “outsider” was hired to the position: when Schembechler took over after the 1968 season. The flaws of both Rodriguez and the athletic department are apparent, and by the end of the book it’s clear the latter has learned from some of its mistakes.

If they’re anything like me, Michigan fans will speed through this book and reach out to fellow fans to discuss it. They’ll also—and I didn’t think this was possible—appreciate Denard Robinson even more. College football fans in general will savor an unprecedented look inside a major program, which recounts the excitement on the field and the drama off of it.

I look forward to hearing from Three and Out readers in the coming months (it comes out tomorrow). As always, post your comments here and/or email me at andrew@thesportsjournalists.com.

Michigan Football 4-0: Deja Vu or Bowl Game Bound?

I am lucky in that the two teams I follow most closely—the New York Mets and Michigan football—have very strong blog communities. I reached out to seven prominent Michigan football bloggers to get their takes on the Wolverines now that, just like 2009, the team is 4-0. Below are lightly edited (and, in some cases, abridged) versions of many of the responses.

Before the season started, you predicted a X-X record. Given the 4-0 start, is it fair to adjust that expectation? (Blogger’s preseason prediction, if one was made, appears before their answer.)

Greg Dooley, MVictors: (6-6) It’s definitely fair to adjust preseason expectations after watching Denard through four games. I didn’t expect us to get through both UConn and Notre Dame unscathed. But I’m really not convinced that the defense will pull them them through the Big Ten schedule.

Brian Cook, MGoBlog: (7-5) Yes, for a couple of reasons. They won two games that were considered coin flips (or thereabouts) before the season, so that’s a game right there. And then Denard is probably worth another game even accounting for the goofy defense. I’m now on the 9-3/8-4 borderline.

Dave Nightingale, Maize n Brew: (7-5) Honestly, no. I fluctuated between and 8-4/7-5 record because of Michigan’s defense, not because of the performance on offense. Going into the game against Indiana, I’m petrified of the Hoosier’s offense and our ability to defend it. When you’re dead last in pass defense and eighth in rush defense (in the Big Ten) going into conference play, I’m not so sure it’s prudent to start dreaming big.

Bob Agno, Big House Blog: (7-5) Yes you can. Before the season we had two big question marks: How would the defense hold up and who would be Michigan’s QB? I still think there are a number of questions on defense, but the offense is much more explosive than I expected. I expect Michigan to go 8-4 with the high still 9-3. The big test will be to see how Michigan plays against a defense like Iowa’s on October 16.

Chris Gaerig, Burgeoning Wolverine Star: (8-4) I think Michigan has a chance to win nine games this year. Every game aside from Wisconsin and Ohio State at the end of the year looks winnable and in several of them, Michigan should be the favorite. The 2-0 start was critical and gives them a bit of leeway for the eventual defensive apocalypse that will cost them a game against a Big Ten bottom feeder.

Lance Callihan, UMGoBlog: Before the season, I said we could beat or lose to anyone, yet I didn’t have much hope against Wisconsin or Ohio State. Now, anything truly can happen.

Brad Muckenthaler, Maize and Blue Nation: I guess I sort of predicted seven or eight wins, but I never picked individual games. After four weeks, and four wins, I don’t feel any need to adjust that prediction. The Big Ten season is a whole different animal, and anything can happen.

How much does last year’s 4-0 start and subsequent collapse affect how you look at this year’s team?

Dooley: It’s a heavy weight for me. I think we’ll know after the Michigan State game whether this defense can hang.

Cook: Not much. The 2009 team was getting outgained (yardage-wise) and still winning; this team has a huge yardage advantage.

Nightingale: Remembering just how bad Michigan’s been on defense the last three years (this year included) is what keeps my expectations grounded. Last season, more than anything, taught me not to overlook obvious flaws in a team just because you root for them.

Who doesn’t like watching Denard Robinson play football?

Agno: I think the offense is more explosive than it was in 2009. Even with Michigan’s fast start last year you saw the offense sputter at times. This year, Michigan’s offense has been consistently been moving the ball. It’s hard to say that the Michigan defense is better in 2010 without Brandon Graham, Donovan Warren, and Troy Woolfolk, but this defense seems to be playing smarter through four games. The other positive is that Michigan already has a road win this year. With that said, the collapse in 2009 is still fresh in everyone’s minds. Fans will hold their collective breath until Michigan has qualified for a Bowl game.

Gaerig: It’s hard to shake the feeling of last year’s team especially with the defensive collapse against UMass. Whether or not Michigan can win against the more potent offenses of the Big Ten (Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana) is going to be the question.

Callihan: The differences between last year and this year are huge. This year the offense comes at you in waves, while last year there was no depth.

Muckenthaler: This team is its own team. I look at this team, especially the offense, as the beginning of what a Rich Rodriguez-led Michigan team should be. I think 2009 taught this team, and its fans, to take the season one week at a time. We got a little ahead of ourselves last year thinking we were better than we really were. Those lessons are still fresh in the mind of this year’s team. I don’t think early success this year has clouded our memories. This team seems to be as focused as ever.

Is there anything about this team that leads you to believe it will avoid the fate of the 2009 squad?

Dooley: The offense is better almost top to bottom. Kicking and punting are way down and will cost us at least one game. The defensive line is a push, the linebackers are maybe slightly improved, the secondary is worse but holding up. All told the team is at least slightly better, with the X-factor being Denard who’s obviously off the charts. If Denard is healthy Michigan is better and should win more games.

Cook: Yardage. Non-freshman quarterbacks. An offense that can do all kinds of stuff.

Nightingale: Offensive depth. Last season our offense was paper thin and injuries completely destroyed its production. Flash forward to 2010: Michigan has actual depth on the offensive line. I can’t name a deeper receiving corps than Michigan’s right now in the Big Ten. At tailback, Michigan has five guys capable of carrying the mail. Relying on an offense to outscore everyone is a dangerous proposition, but against the lower tier of the Big Ten it will garner some wins that were close losses last season. But without continued improvement from Michigan’s linebackers and a pass rush, their margin for error is pretty slim.

Agno: Yes, the defense seems to be better coached with another year under Greg Robinson. On the other side of the ball, it’s clear that as long as Denard stays healthy Michigan will have a chance to win every game they play. I also believe Tate Forcier will win at least one game for Michigan this year.

The bloggers aren’t as high on the defense, which has allowed too many of these (touchdowns).

Gaerig: Aside from Denard, no. The defense is still barren, the offense lacks true playmakers, and the schedule is arguably more difficult this year than it was last year. Michigan is going to be in a fight in a lot of these games, and winning them will depend largely on the turnover battle. Though I think 7-5 or 8-4 is more likely, I wouldn’t be at all surprised by a 5-7 or 6-6 result.

Callihan: Offensive depth. The offense needs to be the strength of this time and it will be. I’ve told people for the last two seasons to stop hoping for the defense to bail out this team. Having the defense lead the way goes against Rich Rodriguez’s philosophy.

Muckenthaler: We have a few things going for us this year that we didn’t have a year ago, like perhaps the most explosive and talented offensive player in the country. But I think the biggest thing is depth on offense. This offense thrives on lots of backs and lots of receivers. That style has created depth at those positions that Michigan has never had before. We’re going to be able to hang with anyone we play this year. That’s something that we didn’t know four weeks ago.

So what can we conclude? First of all, bloggers are smart. Nobody said, “4-0 BABY! BRING ON ALABAMA!! DENARD 4 HEISMAN!!1” In fact, the reactions were far less optimistic than I would have thought. Even for those who claim 2009 means relatively little, I have to imagine it’s fresh in their minds given their cautiousness.

A constant in nearly all responses was offensive depth. An injury to any starter—particularly on defense—would be terrible, but last year it was crippling and was a main factor in the collapse. This year it will take a lot more adversity to prevent Michigan from getting to seven wins.

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Denard Robinson Shines as Michigan Starter; Tate Forcier Demoted to Third String

After months of speculation, the Michigan quarterback depth chart was revealed yesterday as the Wolverines took on Connecticut to open the season and won 31-10. True sophomore Denard Robinson got the start and took all but two snaps—true freshman Devin Gardner filled in when Robinson was banged up late in the third quarter. True sophomore Tate Forcier, who started every game for the Wolverines last year, did not play.

It was only one game, but we learned a lot about the Michigan quarterback situation. Starting with, well, the starter and moving our way down the depth chart, here’s what we learned from Saturday.

Denard Robinson
The spring reports were confirmed on Michigan’s opening drive. Before Saturday, you could question Rich Rodriguez’s decision to start Robinson, but not anymore. Robinson’s numbers were off the charts: 19/22, 186 yards, 1 TD passing; 29 carries for 197 yards and 1 TD rushing. The rushing yards were a single-game Michigan record for a QB. The completions were five more than he had all of last season. The one-trick pony from a year ago is suddenly a legitimate dual-threat.

Robinson’s improved throwing motion was noticeable from his first pass. His accuracy, confidence, and decision-making have all improved greatly. The team clearly supports him. He’s an electrifying player, no doubt, and perhaps his biggest asset is that he makes the defense better, too—by keeping it off the field.

Uninformed critics of Rodriguez’s hiring were upset that Michigan was abandoning years of “power football” for the spread offense. But the spread comes in many forms, and yesterday Michigan ran the ball nearly three times more than it threw.

My guess is that number will shift closer to a 50/50 balance as teams realize they have to try and contain Robinson. Connecticut challenged Robinson to beat them with his arm a few times, and he responded by finding receivers down the field. Can he consistently do that?

Devin Gardner
It’s way too early to tell, but as of right now I disagree with Rodriguez’s decision to make Gardner the No. 2. I simply don’t get it. Robinson is the clear starter, fine. But if he were to get hurt, would you rather have a complete unknown or an experienced and competent player as your back-up?

Of course, Rodriguez and his staff have the advantage of watching Gardner (and Forcier) on a daily basis. I do not. But like Rodriguez I saw Forcier in Michigan’s 12 games last season and for the most part, he performed better than expected. I’d be surprised if Gardner could perform that well if forced into meaningful playing time, but maybe I’m wrong.

I do know that Rodriguez is taking a big gamble by making Gardner the second string quarterback. Not only is Gardner a true freshman, but now Forcier, the guy last year, is a non-factor.

(L to R) Gardner, Forcier, and Robinson warm up before Michigan’s Spring Game. (Credit: Pep Sucharikul)

Tate Forcier
Let the transfer rumors begin. It’s pretty incredible how the quarterback who started every game last season has fallen to third on the depth chart. At any point last season it would have been hard to imagine Forcier not starting this season, but the emergence of Robinson put an end to that thought.

I know it’s only one game, but at this point the lone advantage Forcier has on Robinson is experience. And it’s not like Robinson didn’t take any critical snaps last season. Forcier may have looked fast against a slow Notre Dame defense last season, but he does not have turn-the-corner speed. He can’t burst through holes like Robinson can (in all fairness, can anyone?) and turn five-yard runs into 15-yard gains.

Once defenses realized Forcier was far more effective outside of the pocket, they made it a priority to contain him, and that’s when we learned that Forcier is not much of a pocket passer. Last season, when it came to decision-making and accuracy, Forcier was light years ahead of his back-up. After watching Robinson fire missiles between his receivers’ numbers against UConn, I think he has surpassed Forcier as a passer.

Again, I completely understand Rodriguez’s decision to start Robinson (anyone who watched yesterday’s game should, too), but I am confused by Forcier’s fall to third string. Was it a statement move by the coach to spark a fire under the incumbent starter? I don’t think so, since burning Gardner’s redshirt is more than a minor casualty. I would think Forcier would have to be at least slightly better than the freshman version of himself, but even if he didn’t improve at all, my guess is he’s still better than the young Gardner. I hope we don’t have to find out.

It’s important to remember that, again, it was only one game. Last year, Forcier looked a star for the first five games before he started to look like a true freshman. The Wolverines started 4-0 (and got to 5-2) before collapsing down the stretch and failing to qualify for a bowl game. Defenses will tailor their schemes to Robinson, and how he and the rest of the Michigan offense respond will determine how good this offense really is.

At least for one game though, against a supposedly quality opponent, Michigan’s offense looked like a well-oiled machine.